At the first of what is bound to become numerous hearings on the many immigration bills filed in the Texas Legislature, House State Affairs Committee member Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, found himself fighting a “myth” — the oft-repeated, and erroneous, notion that criminal immigrants roam free in parts of Texas, arrested time and time again by police but never deported because “sanctuary city” policies don’t let officers run immigration checks.
Governor Rick Perry’s decision to fast-track a bill to ban these so-called sanctuary cities as emergency legislation brought out swarms of immigrant activists to last week’s hearing. Only problem with all the controversy: sanctuary cities are already a thing of the past in Texas. The feds made sure of that when they started requiring local law enforcement to participate in the “Secure Communities” initiative.
The program, hailed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a major achievement, is a collaboration between ICE and local police that casts a wider net for catching undocumented immigrants across the country. Under the program, anyone arrested by local police has their fingerprints run through a federal immigration database, a now-mandatory immigration check for all arrestees across Texas.
When Secure Communities was first announced in 2008, some cities and police departments around the country tossed up the same objections heard from Texas law enforcement officials opposed to Arizona-style immigration bills filed in the Lege last month — that the line between local cops and federal immigration agents is there for a reason.
“If people are hesitant to come forward and report crimes, then we’ve got a problem,” said Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz. “The community doesn’t want us to be out there chasing illegal aliens.”
But Bexar County added “Secure Communities” in June 2009 with little-to-no resistance, Ortiz added, saying it kept local law enforcement in a passive role. “It was at no cost to the local agencies, and all we had to do was `run information` through one more database,” Ortiz said. “It’s up to ICE what they do with it.”
Most Texas law enforcement administrators have objected to proposals that would require their departments to step up and check into immigration violations themselves. Speaking at the Capitol last month, El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said, “Our officers are not trained in very complicated immigration law. … If one of my officers makes a mistake and we get sued, who’s going to defend that officer and pay for that? It’s going to be local taxpayers, when that burden should be at the federal level.”
Even with the training, federal immigration agents don’t always get it right. Late last month, the feds agreed to pay $400,000 to a Washington U.S. Army veteran who spent more than seven months in ICE detention, though he repeatedly told agents he was a naturalized citizen.
After ICE announced Secure Communities in 2008, several counties, though none in Texas, voted to opt out, saying they didn’t want their officers becoming an arm of federal immigration enforcement. While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security initially said participation in the program was optional, that went out the window when the Obama administration set a goal of nationwide implementation by 2013. Secure Communities is now active in 1,074 jurisdictions in 39 states, including every county in Texas, according to ICE.
Last month, documents provided to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network by ICE show the agency misled local governments by claiming the program was voluntary. By the fall of 2010, the agency had completely backtracked, saying it no longer needed city and county consent to implement the program.
The roughly 15,000 pages of documents and internal DHS emails obtained and made public by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, most of which were heavily redacted, show ICE officials and PR advisors scrambling with how to handle local resistance to Secure Communities. In a June 23, 2010, email, an ICE staffer even writes, “I’m totally confused now. I’ve got so many versions of the opt-out language I don’t know what’s current and what’s not.”
Immigrant advocates and critics of the program have long said it catches too many non-criminal undocumented immigrants, including victims of domestic violence. WeNews released a startling report last week detailing how a long-time immigrant rights group in New York, Safe Horizon, stopped encouraging undocumented domestic abuse victims to contact police, fearing they could be caught up in Secure Communities and deported. According to the report, attorneys with the group have encountered cases where police responded to a domestic violence call and arrested both parties when the female victim couldn’t speak English.
ICE maintains that the goal of Secure Communities is to identify and deport violent immigrants. According to numbers released from ICE last summer, Secure Communities is responsible for at least 51,000 deportations, a quarter of which were immigrants with no criminal history. In Bexar County, of the 1,042 taken into ICE custody under the program, 235 had no criminal history. Of the 653 deported out of Bexar County, 97 had no criminal history.
At last week’s hearing, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo assured the House committee, “This is not a sanctuary city here in Austin.” He’s right. Since the last Texas counties signed on to Secure Communities in September 2010, “sanctuary cities,” if they ever existed in the state, became a thing of the past.