Posted by Nicole Khamis on July 08, 2015 in Blog

US_Immigration_and_Customs_Enforcement_arrest.jpgOn November 20, 2014, President Obama delivered an historic executive order, promising to stop the deportation for over 5 million undocumented immigrants.

Included in the President’s plan to address a failing immigration system was his decision to end Secure Communities, a deportation program started under the Bush Administration.

Ironic at best in its title as well as its aims, the Secure Communities program sought to establish a virtual Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office within each law enforcement agency on a local and state level. The principles behind Secure Communities sound simple enough: When people are arrested, their fingerprints are sent to ICE and checked against an immigrant database. If they are flagged as undocumented, ICE sends a detainer request asking police to hold them, and then comes to pick them up for eventual deportation. What seemed like a logical system to get localities to cooperate and assist ICE in enforcing immigration laws, actually transformed local and state law enforcement agencies into ICE officers.

The Arab American Institute has consistently called for an end to Secure Communities, which incentivized profiling based on race, religion, or national origin.

For many, Secure Communities meant that any brush with the law had the potential to ruin lives and tear families apart. For example, a fourteen year-old girl from Dallas, Texas, also a U.S. citizen, was deported to Columbia after telling officials a fake name that happened to be an undocumented individual.

Four years into its implementation and multiple litigations later, Secure Communities was deemed unconstitutional. Many states refused to cooperate with Secure Communities because ICE detainer requests were not warrants issued by a judge, which is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment and the right to due process.

But Secure Communities is not totally gone. A new program was put in place, different in name but not in its form, called the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP).

PEP differs from Secure Communities by narrowing the category of people ICE is able to request be detained for deportation. Under PEP, ICE agents may only request detention if the suspect has either been convicted of a serious criminal offense, or if there is sufficient evidence to suggest the person is a threat to public safety or national security. However, what is most alarming in the implementation of PEP is the amount of subjectivity it continues to allow ICE officers, which not only permits but encourages the continuation of biased policing.

Speaking on behalf of the transition to PEP, a spokeswoman for DHS said the “objective is to implement this new approach in a way that supports community policing and public safety.” Programs such as PEP accomplish precisely the opposite. It is said under PEP that only people convicted of serious crimes will be targeted for deportation. This claim is shot down by a Baltimore Sun analysis which found that more than 40% of immigrants deported from Maryland had no prior criminal record.

Priority Enforcement Program may be retooled from Secure Communities, but there are still alarming similarities, particularly when it comes to local and state agencies doing the work of federal law enforcement. Not only further eroding trust between immigrants and law enforcement, officers are invited to select people for deportation based on perceived immigration status instead of protecting their welfare.

The Department of Homeland Security has set up a process to monitor and assess whether the PEP is perpetuating profiling practices. However, the statistics that inform this monitoring program rely heavily on complaints generated by individuals – or families of individuals – who come into contact with ICE officers in the process of arrest, detention, and deportation. While reporting complaints against PEP might seem logical, in the same way immigrants are reluctant to report crime to local police in fear of unexpected legal trouble, PEP complaints are inherently discouraged when the complainant’s immigration status is insecure.

While the nation moves towards progress and secures civil rights for increasing amount of citizens, it is clear that immigration reform is moving in the opposite direction. The path to deportation for many is still alive, and is as quick as a routine traffic stop away, thanks to PEP.

Nicole Khamis is an intern with the Arab American Institute