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Op-Ed: Program Targets Immigrants, Erodes Public Safety (Buffalo News)

By Udi Ofer and John A. Curr III

A version of this column was published in the Buffalo News on March 31, 2011

The Obama administration’s “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) program targeting immigrants for deportation threatens basic civil rights and will make New Yorkers less safe. President Obama should drop it altogether. Short of that, Governor Cuomo should withdraw New York from this misguided program.

Under S-Comm, everyone who is arrested and fingerprinted– including the innocent, domestic violence victims and United States citizens — will have their biometric information checked against the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database. If there is a match of some kind (whether correct or not) that individual will likely be subject to immigration detention, potentially hundreds of miles from home.

In May, New York State quietly entered into an agreement with the federal government regarding S-Comm with the understanding that local jurisdictions could decide for themselves whether to participate in the program. But recently, the Obama administration – amidst great confusion – has stated that participation is mandatory. It hopes to have 30,000 law-enforcement agencies participating by 2013 – basically, every police department in the country.

The Obama administration bills S-Comm as a public safety measure targeting dangerous criminals, but according to data obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, the vast majority of people deported under the program had no criminal records or had been picked up for low-level offenses, like traffic violations. Nationally, only about 20 percent of the people deported through the program were convicted of serious crimes.

Recently released ICE data for the 11 New York State jurisdictions currently participating in S-Comm reflects this trend. The data shows that during the first 49 days that the program operated in New York State, 80 percent of individuals taken into ICE custody were “non-criminals.”

Everyone, immigrants included, wants safe streets. S-Comm will have the opposite effect: It will make our communities less safe, because immigrants, including naturalized citizens, will hesitate to contact the police out of fear of being detained and deported. Crimes will go unreported. Domestic violence victims in particular will not call the police for fear that their family members will end up in deportation.

S-Comm also invites rampant racial profiling. It encourages police to target anyone who looks or sounds “foreign” for minor offenses as a pretext for checking their immigration status.

Moreover, taxpayers will pay for the extra time arrestees spend in jail waiting for immigration checks. And taxpayers will pay again, because local jurisdictions will not be reimbursed by the government if they’re sued for illegal S-Comm detentions.

Beyond the practical concerns, S-Comm is just plain wrong. It contradicts our state’s proud tradition of embracing immigrants and it ignores immigrants’ immeasurable contributions to New York’s economy, culture and heritage.

President Obama should not force state and local jurisdictions into participating in a deeply flawed program that tears apart families and threatens civil rights. Governor Cuomo should demonstrate his commitment to New York’s immigrants by rescinding the state’s agreement with ICE to participate in S-Comm.

Ofer is advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Curr is director of the NYCLU’s Western Regional Office.

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