ICE caused confusion about Secure Communities, says DHS OIG

Homeland Security Department officials stoked confusion among state and local jurisdictions over whether participation in a program to match arrestee fingerprint data against a federal immigration database was voluntary, a DHS office of inspector general report says.

As a result, the data sharing effort, known as Secure Communities, “continues to face opposition, criticism, and resistance in some locations,” the report states.

The report, dated March 27, is one (.pdf) of two (.pdf) released by the DHS OIG on April 6 regarding Secure Communities. Both were requested by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a critic of how DHS--specifically, Immigration and Customs Enforcement--has managed the program.

According to DHS auditors, there was no evidence that “ICE intentionally misled the public” over whether state and local jurisdictions could opt-out of the program.

However, communications from ICE asking communities to “volunteer” to join Secure Communities and agency use of memorandums of agreement to expand participation caused some state and local jurisdictions to believe that participation was indeed voluntary. The fact that all 42 MOAs signed with states included a termination clause allowing unilateral withdrawal also meant that a state could interpret the MOAs to mean that “it could chose not to submit fingerprints to DHS and to end its participation in Secure Communities,” the report notes.

Secure Communities works by transferring fingerprint data uploaded by local law enforcement into the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System to the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System, which automatically checks for matches against immigration records. If the DHS system--known as IDENT--finds a match, the information is sent to the ICE Law Enforcement Support Center, where personnel review as many as 16 databases to determine the criminal history and immigration status of the matched individual. ICE can then request that law enforcement participating in Secure Communities detain the individual in question for transfer to federal jurisdiction.   

In August 2011, ICE Director John Morton informed state governors that "No agreement with the state is legally necessary for one part of the federal government to share it with another part” and revoked the MOAs as moot. Some state and local jurisdictions--including the states of New York and Illinois (.pdf)--said earlier that year they would withdraw from the program due to concerns that it had not focused on the deportation of serious criminals, the program’s stated goal.

As of April 3, 2012, Secure Communities has been activated in 2,590 jurisdictions in 46 states and territories, according (.pdf) to ICE. The agency plans on activating all jurisdictions by the end of fiscal 2013.

Since fiscal 2008, Congress has appropriated about $750 million to ICE to modernize the process for identifying and removing criminal aliens, the other DHS OIG report says. A review of 723 cases by auditors shows that 97 percent of the time, ICE officials took enforcement actions consistent with policy, the report adds. Of those cases, ICE did not request detention about 45 percent of the time--12 percent of the time because the person arrested was a U.S. citizen, 30 percent of the time because the person arrested had legal status and did not have a conviction the grounds for deportation, and 3 percent of the time because the person arrested was an alien with no prior immigration or criminal records.

The report also says that nearly all law enforcement officials in 37 jurisdictions interviewed by auditors said they incurred no additional incarceration costs due to participation in Secure Communities. Officials from Cook County, Ill., which includes the city of Chicago and many of its suburbs, have said ICE detention costs $43,000 per day. The county’s board of commissioners approved in September 2011 a policy (County Ordinance 46 §37) under which it no longer honors ICE requests to detain illegal immigrants after they've posted bail.  

Auditors say they “attempted to interview” Cook County officials and that ICE has not yet activated Secure Communities in that jurisdiction.

In response to the reports, Lofgren issued a statement that auditors “failed to provide answers to key questions.” In its assessment that no intentional misleading about the program occurred, the DHS OIG did not address ICE emails possibly indicating otherwise, Lofgren said. The OIG’s assessment of the program’s efficacy also bypasses questions such as whether it is susceptible to racial profiling, whether it undermines community policing efforts, and whether it ensnares “victims and others with no criminal history.”

For more:
- download the OIG report regarding ICE communication about Secure Communities, OIG-12-66 (.pdf)
- download the OIG report regarding ICE operations, OIG-12-64 (.pdf)

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