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Immigration Dragnet Sweeps Up Domestic Violence Victims

Kate Desormeau,
ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project
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June 16, 2011

States across the country are pushing back against the Obama administration, challenging the Department of Homeland Securities’ (DHS) so-called “Secure Communities” program. The governors of three states — Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts — have now formally sought to end their participation in the controversial program. California may soon join them by adopting a law that would limit its entanglement in Secure Communities.

Because Secure Communities (S-Comm) captures the fingerprints of everyone booked into local custody — even those who are wrongfully arrested by local police or whose criminal charges are dropped — the program invites local law enforcement to arrest people whom they suspect are immigrants, often based solely on appearance, simply to bring them into jail and forward their fingerprints to DHS.

Isaura Garcia is a 20-year-old mother living in Los Angeles who endured three years of domestic violence before calling 911, seeking protection from her abusive boyfriend. After the police arrived, they questioned her about her immigration status, then arrested her and sent her fingerprints to federal immigration authorities. Stunned, Isaura fainted. At the hospital, a doctor found bruises on her body and identified her as a victim of domestic violence, and no charges were filed against her.

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But simply because she had been arrested, Isaura’s fingerprints were submitted to immigration officials and she was placed into deportation proceedings. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only terminated her proceedings after the ACLU of Southern California drew public attention to her case. “I still don’t understand why I was arrested,” she said, “but had I realized I could be arrested after calling 911 for help and deported, I never would have called.”

When it was first rolled out in 2008, S-Comm was sold to the public as a targeted program aimed at deporting “serious criminal offenders.” Now, four years in, ICE’s own statistics show this is far from the truth. The majority of people deported under the program since its inception — 60 percent — have had only misdemeanor convictions (such as traffic violations or municipal code violations), or have done nothing wrong at all.

There has been widespread opposition to the program from across the political spectrum. With more and more stories like Isaura’s, law enforcement officers across the country have expressed their opposition to the program, explaining that it undermines public safety by deterring immigrants from contacting local police when they are victims or witnesses of crime. And as local public officials, members of Congress, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and others have spoken out against Secure Communities, the Obama administration has chosen to remain silent.

These individuals and groups have urged the administration to suspend the program pending a thorough review, and denounced DHS’s lack of transparency and misinformation about how the program works. In the meantime, however, S-Comm is expanding at breakneck speed to local jurisdictions across the United States, causing massive numbers of noncriminal deportations, discouraging domestic violence and other victims of crimes from seeking police help and abetting racial profiling and abusive police practices.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General has announced that it will launch an internal investigation of S-Comm this summer. Sadly, it comes far too late for many individuals who have already been swept up in this ill-conceived dragnet. Thousands of families and communities across the country have already been unnecessarily broken apart. The public’s trust in local law enforcement has been deeply damaged. Now is the moment that the administration must commit to making this right.

Tell President Obama: suspend Secure Communities everywhere until the OIG review is complete and the program’s civil liberties problems are resolved.

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