Back to News & Commentary

DHS Told Loud and Clear: Stop Tearing Immigrant Families Apart

Chris Rickerd,
Senior Policy Counsel,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Department
Share This Page
August 25, 2011

Last night in Arlington, Virginia, a community spoke to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by bearing witness to fear and hardship sown by the immigration enforcement program misleadingly called Secure Communities. Hundreds of people were turned away from this field meeting of the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Task Force on S-Comm, but those 300 who crowded into a university auditorium – including students, clergy, nongovernmental organization activists, U.S. citizens and immigrants – conveyed eloquently-told stories of S-Comm’s irreparable flaws. The community’s message about S-Comm was “End It, Don’t Amend It.”

S-Comm, which DHS intends to force into every U.S. jurisdiction by 2013, is an arrest-based fingerprint identification program that has already cost taxpayers $550 million. Everyone is checked for immigration status, regardless of whether the arrest: (i) resulted from racial profiling of those perceived as looking or sounding “foreign;” (ii) led to charges that were later dropped or dismissed by a judge; or (iii) detained a person who was in fact a crime victim such as a domestic violence survivor. Congress never authorized S-Comm, but rather instructed DHS to prioritize finding and deporting dangerous immigrants convicted of the most serious crimes, a task for which DHS has ample tools other than S-Comm. Playing by its own rules, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) created S-Comm as a dragnet program that has captured, frequently detained, and deported more than 120,000 immigrants, 60 percent with no criminal record or only one or two misdemeanor convictions for offenses such as traffic violations.

The meeting’s most resonant statements came from two courageous immigrant women who spoke truth to power by addressing their comments directly to S-Comm head Marc Rapp. Maria and Florinda told their S-Comm nightmares: both were arrested for selling phone cards without a license, a misdemeanor. Maria had called 911 for help after a domestic dispute with her partner; instead, she was arrested and, because of S-Comm, placed in deportation proceedings. Maria’s phone card charge was dropped but the deportation proceedings continue. Both women face separation from their U.S. citizen children; Maria’s little girl is already growing up without her father, who was caught by S-Comm after making an illegal turn and deported.

Arlington speakers stressed that S-Comm traps harmless immigrants while harming community policing and public safety by making immigrants afraid to call police and report crime. Mark Shmueli, a member of the Commission to Study the Impact of Immigrants in Maryland, noted that S-Comm outsources immigration responsibilities to state and local police “who are completely outside DHS’s control,” some of whom scoff at federal priorities. He cited Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County, Maryland, who testified before the commission that police officers can always nab a driver for infractions such as hanging fuzzy dice on the rearview mirror. S-Comm turns arrests like these into deportations; it’s no wonder that in Frederick County, 96 percent of S-Comm deportees had either no convictions or one or two misdemeanors.

Arlington County Board Member Walter Tejada spoke out against ICE’s misleading public statements that S-Comm was a voluntary program for state and local governments. Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts all relied on these false representations to decide on public safety grounds not to collaborate with S-Comm. A federal judge later concluded that “[t]here is ample evidence that ICE and DHS have gone out of their way to mislead the public” about S-Comm, and there is a pending investigation by the DHS Inspector General.

A local priest described his parishioner from Uruguay, whose deportation after a misdemeanor left her U.S. citizen daughter without her mother for first communion. He added that in his community immigrants were too scared to notify police of a body found in the woods: this fear does not show up in any statistics but provides evidence that communities across the country are less safe under S-Comm. As a new report asks, “How Do You Police a Community That Won’t Talk to You?”

After deporting a million people, more than half of whom had no criminal record, the Obama administration this summer belatedly recognized that its immigration enforcement efforts need better prioritization. Last night’s meeting showed that S-Comm is a major part of the problem. DHS must not be the judge deciding that every jurisdiction in America has to implement S-Comm despite leading police chiefs’ opinions that it harms their communities’ public safety.

DHS must not be the jury mandating that traffic offenders and wrongfully arrested people have their fingerprints checked for immigration status. And DHS must not execute deportation orders for immigrants who pose no danger to our society, but rather contribute to its flourishing and ensure the welfare of their U.S. citizen children.

End It, Don’t Amend It.

Learn more about Secure Communities: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page