In a huge victory for civil liberties, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday, June 1, 2011, suspended his state's participation in a federal deportation program that tore apart families, encouraged racial profiling and harmed public safety by creating mistrust between police and immigrant communities.
Under the program known as Secure Communities (S-Comm), local police hand over the biometric data of every person arrested and fingerprinted — innocent or guilty — to federal immigration authorities who check it against their databases. If there is a match — whether correct or not — an individual could be sent to detention centers hundreds of miles from home and even deported.
Gov. Cuomo's courageous decision followed months of advocacy by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and our allies in the immigrants' rights and civil rights communities. Before yesterday, S-Comm was operating in 27 of New York's 62 counties. Nationwide, the program has been activated in about 1,300 of the nation's 3,181 local law enforcement jurisdictions, according to ICE.
S-Comm makes immigrants, including naturalized citizens, hesitant to contact the police or report crime out of fear of being detained and deported. For instance, domestic violence victims in particular may not call the police for fear that their family members will end up being arrested, detained, and deported. The program also invites racial profiling by encouraging police to target anyone who looks or sounds foreign for minor offenses as a pretext for checking immigration status.
The federal government claims that S-Comm snags and deports dangerous criminal convicts, but ICE data analyzed by the NYCLU show that more than 80 percent of immigrants in New York deported through the program had not been convicted of a state crime. Nationally about 60 percent of people deported through the program had no criminal records or had been picked up for low-level offenses, like loitering.
When New York State quietly entered into an agreement in May 2010 with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it did so with assurances from federal officials that local jurisdictions could decide for themselves whether to participate in the program. Later, DHS stated that participation was mandatory.
A letter recently released by a former government contractor who worked on expanding the program in the states revealed that ICE had intentionally misled New York to obtain the state's participation in Secure Communities.
Thomas H. Mungeer, President of the New York State Police Benevolent Association, said in a statement supporting Gov. Cuomo yesterday:
The questions that have surrounded the implementation of Secure Communities drives a wedge between law enforcement and the people they are sworn to protect. We are confident that the procedures we currently use and the strong relationships we currently have with federal, state and local authorities will ensure that we can keep our communities safe while also maintaining our relationship of trust.
New York isn't the only state where S-Comm has come under fire. On May 5, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois withdrew his state from S-Comm — the first state to withdraw from the program. And last week, the California state assembly passed the Trust Act, a bill that would allow counties to opt-out of S-Comm; the bill is now pending before the state senate. The DHS inspector general is also investigating S-Comm.
We are deeply gratified by Gov. Cuomo's principled stand, but the fight's not over. The governor is sure to take a lot of heat for his courageous stand. You can help us secure this victory. Please join us in thanking Gov. Cuomo for standing for freedom, justice, and human dignity!