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DHS Sends Troublingly Mixed Messages on Secure Communities Reform

Chris Rickerd,
Senior Policy Counsel,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Department
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March 20, 2015

UPDATE: ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña had this to say on Friday afternoon about her comments regarding Secure Communities: “Any effort at federal legislation now to mandate state and local law enforcement’s compliance with ICE detainers will, in our view, be a highly counterproductive step and lead to more resistance and less cooperation in our overall efforts to promote public safety.” See full statement here. — 1:46 p.m., 3/20/2015

In her debut testimony before Congress yesterday, new Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña enthusiastically agreed with Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s (R-S.C.) suggestion that Congress “clarify the law” by forcing state and local compliance with ICE requests to keep people in jail after their release dates.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Saldaña’s boss, struck a very different tone last November when he acknowledged “the increasing number of federal court decisions that hold that [detention based on ICE requests to] state and local law enforcement agencies violates the Fourth Amendment.” He pledged to reform, and rename, the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program – which relies on state and local detention of immigrants – in a way that “supports community policing and sustains the trust of all elements of the community in working with local law enforcement.”

Saldaña’s statement, however, directly contradicts her boss’s approach, not to mention a recent federal appeals court decision that ICE can only make non-binding detention requests. Thankfully, neither she nor Congress can “clarify” the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment and principles of federalism prohibit forcing state and local jurisdictions to deprive people of their liberty based only on an ICE official’s suspicion of immigration violations. Saldaña’s testimony calls into question DHS’s commitment to reform the failed Secure Communities program, which has caused rampant racial profiling, hundreds of thousands of unjust family separations, and deters immigrants from calling the police – even after witnessing or being victimized by crime.

Secretary Johnson stated four months ago that a new Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) would be implemented to replace Secure Communities “almost immediately.” Among other proposed changes, the secretary directed ICE to discontinue many of its requests for detention. The ACLU analyzed PEP’s strengths and weaknesses. However, four months after the secretary’s announcement, PEP still does not exist and the stench of Secure Communities lingers on.

Saldaña’s few choice words asking Congress to force sheriffs sworn to uphold the Constitution to violate their oaths, and contradict their communities’ best judgments about local public safety, were shocking. By saying “Thank you, Amen, yes!” to Rep. Mulvaney, Saldaña insulted all the states and localities across the country who have wisely decided to stay out of immigration enforcement.

Saldaña’s answer casts serious doubt on whether DHS is truly committed to rebuilding the trust so badly damaged by Secure Communities. She and DHS must immediately clarify their true intentions and end ICE’s unconstitutional detention requests.

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