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Nancy Ohanian, Tribune Media Services

State adopts an unsettling use of power

  • Article by: IAN BRATLIE
  • February 24, 2012 - 8:00 PM

On Feb. 7, Minnesota joined the Secure Communities program, a program used by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to apprehend potentially unlawful noncitizens.

ICE claims it is used to catch the most dangerous noncitizens, and the Hennepin County sheriff hailed the program.

The ACLU-MN is concerned about this program. Secure Communities is ineffective at actually catching dangerous noncitizen criminals, is costly and violates due-process rights.

Under Secure Communities, when the FBI receives fingerprints from law enforcement in Minnesota, it will now forward the prints to Homeland Security, which will run them through a database called IDENT.

That database holds fingerprint data on more than 90 million people, both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. ICE can request that local law enforcement hold a suspected individual in jail beyond the limits of state-sanctioned custody.

While we want to think Homeland Security is only reviewing noncitizens, the reality is different. It reviews everyone.

A study by the Warren Institute at the Berkeley Law School estimated that more than 3,600 U.S. citizens were unlawfully held due to Secure Communities flags. From the time Secure Communities began in October 2008 through April 2011, Homeland Security received 7.8 million sets of fingerprints.

Of those, less than 7 percent were flagged as noncitizens, and less than 3 percent were actually placed into ICE custody. Less than 1 percent of all individuals in the database were flagged as "L1" offenders, a label reserved for the most dangerous offenders that are the program's supposed targets.

And after all those IDENT searches of all those millions of people, only 119,912 individuals identified through Secure Communities were actually removed. And well more than half of those individuals had either no criminal record or very minor offenses, such as traffic violations.

All in all, only 40,000 "bad guys" have been deported through the program, which means it has a 99 percent failure rate.

Secure Communities alone costs U.S. taxpayers $200 million each year, which amounts to nearly a billion dollars since its inception.

That doesn't include the costs placed on local communities to hold people in jail longer than their state requires. Chicago and New York City have already tried to get out of this requirement because of cost. Cook County (Chicago) said that it cost $15.7 million a year to hold these individuals for ICE.

Secure Communities was created by Homeland Security and the FBI, not by an act of Congress. Originally, it was supposed to be voluntary. But after many states, including Minnesota, refused to comply, the Obama administration made it compulsory.

Individuals caught up by Secure Communities face a substantial loss of due-process rights. They do not have to have their rights explained to them when they are talking to a deportation officer.

Once in immigration custody, due-process rights are even harder to enforce. Individuals can be moved around the country without notice.

Studies have found that noncitizens apprehended under Secure Communities are less likely to see an immigration judge or even to speak with an attorney and are much more likely to sign away their rights without fully understanding them.

Secure Communities targets people at the time of arrest, not at arraignment or conviction, so it affects people regardless of their guilt or innocence.

Thus, in jurisdictions where Secure Communities is operating, crime victims and witnesses are afraid to seek help, call 911, report crimes, or otherwise interact with police.

For example, domestic-violence victims are sometimes arrested along with their abusers when police, responding to a potentially dangerous situation (often with language barriers), are unable to determine which party is the aggressor. In counties where Secure Communities is already operating, domestic-violence victims have been deported as a result.

All persons in the United States are entitled to due process. Secure Communities is another way for the government to attempt to circumvent due-process rights for people in a minority group.

Until Homeland Security implements meaningful safeguards and oversight, Secure Communities should be shut down. Regardless of how you feel about our immigration issues, trying to limit constitutional protections cannot be the answer.

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Ian Bratlie is staff attorney for the ACLU-MN Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project.

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