Obama admin to states: Deportation program agreements not necessary

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

The Obama administration is canceling contracts with 39 governors who agreed to allow a federal deportation program in their local jails. Administration officials say that the contracts gave the mistaken impression that the controversial program, known as "Secure Communities," is optional.

Secure Communities makes county jails share their fingerprints with federal immigration agents, who use them to find and deport illegal immigrants. About 30 percent of the people deported under the program since 2009 did not have criminal records, according to the Wall Street Journal, including people who were fingerprinted for minor traffic offenses. The program is expected to be in every county by 2013, and ICE is still in the process of expanding it to all 50 states.

John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in a letter to governors on Friday that the agreements are no longer "legally necessary" to enforce the finger-print sharing program. He writes that ICE doesn't need permission to access local fingerprints, because jails already voluntarily share that information with the FBI to get background checks and other information. States can't prevent the FBI from sharing their data with other federal agencies, Morton says.

Immigrant-rights advocates have criticized the federal government for giving the impression that Secure Communities was optional, and then about-facing to insist that it's mandatory. Department of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano announced Secure Communities was compulsory in 2010, after several counties said they were told they could opt-out when the program began in 2008.

It's unclear what Morton's policy statement will mean for the three states--Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York--that have explicitly refused to sign the ICE contracts or pulled out of the program after signing. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's office told The Lookout that Quinn remains "concerned" that Secure Communities "may make people less inclined to reach out to law enforcement."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told The Boston Globe through a spokesman that he will continue to oppose Secure Communities. The Lookout is still waiting for a response from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

A federal judge who ordered ICE to release internal documents about the program last month wrote that "there is ample evidence that ICE and DHS have gone out of their way to mislead the public about Secure Communities." The DHS's inspector general is investigating whether the agency initially misled states about the program's mandatory status.

National Day Labor Organizing Network Legal Director Chris Newman issued a statement assailing ICE for "engaging in protracted negotiations--at substantial cost to the American public--for what it now claims are sham contracts." The group is part of the lawsuit demanding ICE release documents on the program.

In his letter to governors, Morton referenced his recent memo telling immigration agents and attorneys to take "particular care and consideration" when considering cases of illegal immigrants who have lived in the country a long time, are minors or elderly, are veterans and a variety of other factors. Morton says the agency's priority is to deport illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.