Backing out of S-comm Program Might Prove Far Easier Said Than Done

It’s been a controversial program for a sometime in East Boston where nearly 50 percent of the population is made up of people from Central and South America. Some people are either undocumented or have non-U.S. citizenship. But while city and states are now looking to withdraw from the Secure Communities Program the federal government this week just made it nearly impossible.

Secure Communities, or S-Comm, was a pilot program in Boston beginning in 2006. The program is an American Deportation tactic that relies on partnership between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and is enforced by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The program has targeted illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes, such as homicide, kidnapping, robbery, major drug offenses with sentences greater than one year, and offenses involving threats to national security. The program also seeks to deport all other felonies as well as  misdemeanors and lesser crimes.

Because most of the criminals deported under the program, as high as 53 percent, were convicted of lesser crimes like auto theft, former S-Comm supporters like Mayor Thomas Menino began to  re-think the their  ‘voluntary’ participation in the program.

As recent as July and with pressure coming from civil rights and immigrant groups, Menino informed Homeland Security’s S-Comm task force that he plans to withdraw Boston police from the federal program if immigration authorities do not focus deportation efforts on those who have committed serious offenses.

“As operated now, Secure Communities is diminishing trust, an essential part of the neighborhood fabric and a vital public safety tool. Secure Communities must change substantially changed or scrapped.” Menino said in a letter to Homeland Security.

However, this week Homeland Security – in a brief conference call with advocates – announced that they are rescinding the S-Comm’s Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) with cities and states like Boston that have expressed a desire to withdraw from the program.

This means that Homeland Security intends to continue operating S-Comm in jurisdictions in which the program is already active like Boston.

Their position remains that this program is mandated by federal law and that the MOAs with cities like Boston are not necessary.  DHS was not clear on whether they will expand in certain states, but is still holding to their stance that the program will be mandatory nationwide in 2013.

“This is a slap in the face to states that are properly more concerned about enforcing criminal law than civil immigration law,” said Sarang Sekhavat, Federal policy Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.  “It is clear that DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been misleading the public and state and local officials about this program from the start.  Now they are continuing to force a program onto states that recognize its fundamental flaws. This is a situation which cannot and should not be tolerated.”

The federal government’s S-Comm fingerprint-sharing program was started under President George W. Bush to round up “serious criminals” who could be deported for immigration violations. Since then, it has been expanded by President Barack Obama and Homeland Security under Secretary Janet Napolitano. Under the program, anyone who comes into a police department with the program in place, whether as a suspected perpetrator, witness, or even as a victim of a crime, is fingerprinted and checked against a federal immigration database, which can trigger immediate deportation proceedings.

While originally sold to local police departments and the general public as an opt-in partnership that would target serious criminals, S-Comm has faced increasing scrutiny because of the rates at which it targets non-criminal immigrants for deportation, as well as Homeland Security’s claims that the program is no longer a voluntary partnership

Prominent cases of women suffering domestic abuse, who are then targeted for deportation by immigration authorities under S-Comm, have sparked outrage and mini-campaigns across the country to pull communities, cities, and even states out of the program, as well as to freeze the program until such time as it can be investigated fully.

While Massachusetts as a state withdrew from the program, Boston continues to operate S-Comm under an agreement signed in 2006.

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