After the killing of Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama would like to establish himself as the new sheriff in town. When it comes to immigration enforcement, elected officials within the president's own party are saying: Not in our town.
San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey said Friday that he will begin releasing illegal immigrants locked up in county jail for what he considers low-level crimes even if federal immigration authorities ask that they be held as part of the Secure Communities program. The illegal aliens set to go free have been arrested on such charges as disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and shoplifting. A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) described Hennessey's decision as "unfortunate."
Of course, San Francisco is a sanctuary city. Hennessey said a year ago that local and federal immigration enforcement priorities conflicted, he would comply with the former. It was more surprising when Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced last week that he was pulling his state out of the Secure Communities program entirely. The California state legislature is considering a bill that would make local cooperation with federal immigration authorities voluntary.
Secure Communities began as a pilot program during the Bush administration in 2008. When police in participating communities book people into jail, they share the fingerprints with ICE just like they do the FBI. ICE cross-references the prints against databases it maintains. If there is a match, immigration authorities can request that the individual be kept in custody up to 48 hours beyond their scheduled release date. ICE can then grab them and initiate deportation proceedings.
The program was designed to facilitate the deportation of criminal aliens in state and local custody. Participation has exploded from just 14 jurisdictions working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when it was first rolled out to 1,400 by early 2011. Secure Communities has become an important part of the Obama administration's campaign to appear tough on illegal immigration, accounting for a significant part of its much-ballyhooed spike in deportations.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick faced a firestorm of criticism from civil rights and immigrant groups for signing on. He has held what the New York Times describes as "a series of heavily attended and sometimes raucous meetings on the program" as he tries to sell Secure Communities to liberal Bay State residents. In Maryland, Montgomery County considered opting out before "reluctantly" agreeing to take part.
Liberals are balking because not everyone removed under Secure Communities has been convicted of a dangerous crime. Some people are being deported -- horrors! -- simply for being illegal aliens. Quinn maintains that, according to ICE statistics, less than 20 percent of the illegal immigrants deported from Illinois have ever been convicted of a serious crime.
Compounding the problem is confusion over whether participation is mandatory. Several states have entered into what is called a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the federal government implying that their cooperation is voluntary. An August 2010 DHS memo stated that local governments could request "adjusting the jurisdiction's activation date in or removing the jurisdiction from the deployment plan," but DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has been quoted as saying "Secure Communities is mandatory and will be extended to all jurisdictions in the country by 2013." The secretary said "we do not view this as an opt-in, opt-out program."
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has asked the Obama administration to suspend the program until it can be guaranteed that garden-variety illegal aliens will not be deported. Ironically, the administration has not made the deportation of non-criminal aliens a top enforcement priority. Both Bush and Obama pushed Secure Communities in part to showcase an enforcement effort as part of the "comprehensive immigration reform" gambit. The endgame is still the legalization of most of the illegal immigrants in the United States.
The same Department of Homeland Security that implements Secure Communities has repeatedly been caught discussing ways it can use its powers of administrative discretion to effectively amnesty subsets of illegal immigrants, such as those who would have benefit from the DREAM Act voted down by Congress. ICE has been criticized by customs and border patrol agents for a lack of seriousness about immigration enforcement. The Obama Justice Department has argued in federal courts that Arizona's SB 1070 is unconstitutional in part because it refers illegals the federal government has decided not to make it a priority to deport.
Yet even this is too much for some in Obama's party. New York Daily News columnist Albor Ruiz called Secure Communities a "mass deportation program" as he praised Pat Quinn for pulling Illinois out. Officials in sanctuary cities are displeased.
Some liberal politicians have finally discovered a federal program they find too intrusive. And a triangulating president will have to see if he can keep his base in check on illegal immigration.