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Opinion: The Flaws of “Secure Communities”
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Opinion: The Flaws of “Secure Communities”

In 2011, the federal government expanded the Secure Communities program to help identify and deport immigrants. Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that partnering with local agencies would help them efficiently remove immigrants who were serious criminal offenders. However, critics said that the program was being used to deport immigrants who were not criminals and was damaging relationships between local police and the community.

In editorials published in the Los Angeles Times, Sandra Hernandez examined the impact of Secure Communities on Los Angeles County. The first editorial focused on a lawsuit filed by a community group that sought to obtain information on how many immigrants were held in county jails – the same type of data that journalists were having trouble getting. The second editorial looked at the sheriff’s policy of refusing to let immigrants held in jail to post bail.

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Sandra’s Story Behind the Story

The Department of Homeland Security has increasingly enlisted local law enforcement officials to help identify and deport immigrants. In Los Angeles County, it has partnered with Sheriff Lee Baca to launch Secure Communities in the county’s jails system.

Under Secure Communities, the sheriff’s department is required to share the finger prints of all arrestees booked in the county’s jails with federal officials, including the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration agents can request law enforcement hold an individual for up to 48 hours in a local jail. However, police are not reimbursed for the costs of that temporary detention.

I set out to find out the fiscal costs of Secure Communities for Los Angeles County. In order to do that, however, I needed to know how many immigrants were held and for how long. I made multiple attempts to obtain information from the Sheriff’s Department, including requesting a copy of the agreement and other financial contracts with federal officials but was told it could only be released by Homeland Security officials.

So in an effort to collect some information, we turned to civil and immigrant rights’ groups that collected data on individual cases involving immigrants held in the jails, often for longer than the 48 hours permitted under the federal government’s request, known as a detainer. Through my contact with some of the organizations I learned that one of the community group’s had sued the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

The first editorial connected to my project was published in August and focused that lawsuit, which sought to obtain information on how many immigrants were held in the county jails over the last several years. That lawsuit, led me to data filed in the case that suggested immigrants were often held for far longer than the time allowed by the federal detainer request.

After the editorial was published, the sheriff’s department released the information that the groups were seeking. The second editorial was published in early October, after another report by the not-for-profit reform group Justice Strategies was released. That study put the county’s cost of holding immigrants while they awaited transfer to federal custody at $26 million a year. It also found that immigrants were held for an average of 20 days longer than legal residents facing the same criminal charge.

The second editorial also focused on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over the sheriff’s policy of refusing immigrants held in the jail to post bail and the to allow those immigrants facing detainers to post bail. The lawsuit is on-going and the Sheriff’s Department has since vowed to allow immigrants to post bail even in cases where Homeland Security officials have requested they be held. Separately, the Los Angeles Police Department has announced it is revising its detainer policy and will scale back its cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Local groups and the public have reacted positively to the editorials suggesting these have helped focus attention on a little known sheriff’s department policy. But some readers, who support tougher enforcement of existing immigration laws, felt that people facing deportation should not be afforded some of the same legal protections as U.S. citizens.

The IJJ fellowship was extremely helpful. The week-long program put me in touch with legal experts. I was able to learn a great deal, for example, from the speakers, among them Aarti Kohli, director of policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warrant Center for Law and Policy at Berkeley School of Law. Kohli was able to help walk me through how law enforcement agencies often handle detainers. Additionally, I gained a great deal of insight from speaking with other journalists who described how Secure Communities and detainers operated in their cities. And I continue to follow the work of other fellows who provide support and a wealth of information and ideas.

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