Resistance Widens to Obama Initiative on Criminal Immigrants
BOSTON — Mayor Thomas Menino, who often invokes his heritage as the grandson of an Italian immigrant, was one of the first local leaders in the country to embrace a federal program intended to improve community safety by deporting dangerous immigrant criminals.
But five years after Boston became a testing ground for the fingerprinting program, known as Secure Communities, Mr. Menino is one of the latest local officials to sour on it and seek to withdraw. He found that many immigrants the program deported from Boston, though here illegally, had committed no crimes. The mayor believed it was eroding hard-earned ties between Boston’s police force and its melting-pot mix of ethnic neighborhoods.
Last month, Mr. Menino sent a letter to the program with a blunt assessment. “Secure Communities is negatively impacting public safety,” he wrote, asking how Boston could get out.
On Aug. 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the program, gave an equally blunt response. Its director, John Morton, announced he was canceling all agreements that 40 states and cities had signed to start Secure Communities. Their assent was not legally required, he said, and he planned to move ahead anyway to extend the program nationwide by 2013.
So Boston’s mayor, together with a growing number of other state and local officials, is stuck.
Mr. Menino’s disenchantment illustrates the widening resistance from cities and states that is troubling one of President Obama’s most far-reaching programs to toughen enforcement against illegal immigration.
Administration officials are pressing ahead, saying that information-sharing laws passed after the Sept. 11 attacks mandate the program. The clash will gain a higher profile this month, when a task force Mr. Morton named to recommend fixes is to hold public hearings in a half-dozen cities.
In an interview, Mr. Menino was alternately worried and indignant about the program.
“We need those community folks to tell us what is going on out there,” said the mayor, a Democrat who has run Boston for 18 years. As a result of Secure Communities, he said, word is out in Boston that patrol officers are working with federal agents to deport immigrants for offenses as minor as traffic violations.
“What’s happening is, we’re losing the trust of the immigrant community in Boston,” he said.
Obama administration officials vigorously defend Secure Communities, saying it is essential for identifying immigrant gang members and other violent criminals arrested by the local police, so federal agents can focus on deporting them. Officials say they are taking steps to avoid deporting foreigners detained for immigration violations, which generally are civil, not criminal, offenses.
In a July 25 letter defending his strategy, Mr. Obama said that deportations of convicted criminals over all increased by 70 percent in 2010 over 2008, while the share of noncriminals among deportees was declining. “The increase in the proportion of criminal removals demonstrates that this strategy is having a real impact,” the president wrote.
Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of anyone booked into jail are checked against the F.B.I.’s criminal databases — long a routine police practice — and forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security to be run through its databases, which record immigration violations. If an immigration check yields a match, the immigration agency decides whether to detain the foreigner for deportation.
After several pilot projects like the one Boston started in 2006, the agency formally inaugurated Secure Communities in Houston in October 2008. It quickly expanded, with little fanfare or protest, to about 1,500 counties or other jurisdictions, about half the 3,181 jurisdictions in the nation.
But this year three governors — including Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, as well as Pat Quinn of Illinois and Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, all Democrats — announced that they wanted to pull out, as did officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and more than 200 immigrant groups have asked Mr. Obama to suspend the program.
Mr. Morton has addressed some complaints. In June, he issued new guidelines giving immigration agents broad discretion to halt deportations of noncriminal illegal immigrants. He traveled to places of dissent, including Boston, working to eliminate confusion — which he acknowledged the immigration agency had created — over whether jurisdictions could opt out.
Mr. Morton set up the task force, which includes police chiefs, immigration lawyers and representatives of immigration agent unions. Its chairman, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said the group quickly set aside Mr. Morton’s assignment to deliver recommendations in 45 days. Its first hearing was this week in Dallas; others scheduled so far will be in Los Angeles; Chicago; Arlington, Va.; and Boston.
In Boston, where about 200,000 immigrants make up one-quarter of the population, Mr. Menino said he was originally attracted to Secure Communities because immigrant leaders liked the sound of it. “A person with a homicide or major crime, immigrants don’t want them in their community either,” he said.
Problems started earlier this year when advocacy groups released immigration data showing that more than half of 313 immigrants deported from Boston under the program had no criminal convictions. Many had been detained in traffic stops.
Boston’s police commissioner, Edward Davis, had been a Secure Communities supporter, because his records showed that it had removed many violent criminal immigrants from Boston jails. But he concluded from the new figures that immigration officials had misled him.
“They specifically told us they would not be removing people with traffic offenses,” Mr. Davis said. “They said they wouldn’t and now they have.”
Mr. Davis said he was taken aback by the indifference of immigration officials to his questions. “This is a throwback to the bad old days of the federal agencies before 9/11, when we did not have cooperation,” he said. “It is really disconcerting that they are not at all concerned about our precarious situation with immigrant communities.”
At the end of the school year, Mr. Menino held a lunch for about 30 valedictorians graduating from Boston high schools. He discovered that six of the city’s highest-ranking students were illegal immigrants. Then he began to hear stories of immigrants snared by Secure Communities.
One was Leonardo Machado, 35, an illegal immigrant and a construction worker from Brazil who was stopped by a traffic officer because a rear brake light was out. He did not have a valid driver’s license. Immigration agents went to traffic court and led him away in ankle and foot chains.
Mr. Machado agreed to leave for Brazil, along with his Brazilian wife and 5-year-old-son, a Boston-born American citizen. “I am not fighting against the laws,” Mr. Machado said as he prepared his departure. “But I am not a criminal, and my wife and my little son are not criminals. They did not have to humiliate us like that.”
Heloisa Galvao, executive director of the Brazilian Women’s Group here, said: “People listen to these stories. Lately the people are scared of the police because they think the police are involved in immigration.”
Mr. Menino said a July 7 meeting he held with immigrant leaders had persuaded him to try to cancel the program. He did not hide his anger when immigration officials said it would continue.
“People will start to say the police are gestapos,” the mayor said. “My police aren’t gestapos. You can’t be a bureaucrat in Washington and just say, ‘We don’t care.’ ” Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Saturday, August 13, 2011.