New York - Nearly a year after advocacy groups sought documents to clarify the Department of Homeland Security's "Secure Communities" programme, the government has largely failed to satisfy the requests for information, a federal judge has ruled.
"I think the government is dragging its feet," Judge Shira A. Scheindlin declared last week.
As the government has delayed, the programme has dramatically expanded, prompting growing controversy about the secrecy and mixed signals sent by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and chain of command with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), of which ICE is part.
The principal issue is whether local law enforcement can opt out of the programme. ICE and other DHS officials have alternated between "yes" and "no", sowing confusion among some police departments, and entire states and counties.
To find an answer, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic of Cardozo Law school, filed a freedom of information act request for files relating to the rapidly expanding deportation programme that culls fingerprints from local law enforcement databases.
After the agency refused to hand over the documents, the groups took ICE to court.
Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS, "As advocates across the country are pushing on the state and local levels to find a way to opt out of Secure Communities, we are going to court to obtain information that the public and advocates need to determine how and if it's possible to opt out. Only the government has the information everyone needs."
Judge Scheindlin set Jan. 17, 2011 as the new date for ICE to release the documents or explain why they must be withheld. She also set Feb. 25 as the deadline for ICE to release a second set of documents related to other topics in the records request.
The judge noted several times that if the defendants fail to produce documents in the two upcoming hearings they will face possible contempt sanctions.
Secure Communities is a programme that allows state and local police to check the fingerprints of an individual they are booking into a jail against DHS immigration databases.
If there is a "hit", ICE is automatically notified, even if the person has not been convicted of any criminal act.
Advocates and community leaders across the country have called this programme "dangerous" and say it strains local law enforcement and resources while damaging already the already tenuous relationship between immigrant communities and the police.
"To keep our families together, we need to keep police and ICE separate. The Orwellian-named Secure Communities programme does the opposite of making us safer," said Sarahí Uribe of NDLON. "We see innocent people swept up in a massive dragnet sending a chilling effect through migrant communities."
Municipalities such as San Francisco and Santa Clara in California and Arlington, Virginia have voted to opt out and numerous others localities are deliberating their participation.
Advocacy groups say immigration authorities in charge of the programme have been "inconsistent and dishonest in representing the relationship between local governments and the federal programme".
In an email to New York Governor David Patterson, the agency said "[W]e get it. No one will be forced." In a press conference two months later, ICE said, "[The agency] does not see this as an opt-in opt-out programme."
Secure Communities is one of several ICE programmes that rely on continuing cooperation from local law enforcement authorities. In the 287(g) programme, for example, local police and sheriffs have been recruited to help federal immigration authorities by arresting and detaining persons suspected of having committed immigration crimes.
While many local law enforcement authorities have become part of the programme, many others have refused to participate.
They say Secure Communities can lead to racial profiling. They also contend that enforcing federal immigration law is the job of the federal government; that local peace officers don't have the training and experience to enforce complex immigration law; and that existing police manpower is needed for community policing.
In addition, it has been revealed that many of those who have been deported by the Barack Obama administration have committed only minor infractions such as broken taillights and driving without a license. ICE's programmes are supposedly geared toward deporting dangerous criminal aliens.
With 13 states yet to join the programme, New York and numerous other activated jurisdictions still trying to opt out, and with its current spokespeople unwilling to set the record straight, advocates are asking a judge to counteract the misinformation by opening the files related to the "opt- out" policies immediately.
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