Its somewhat ominous law enforcement slang name is S-Comm, which stands for the federal “Secure Communities” program that's theoretically designed to identify and deport dangerous criminals who've entered the United States illegally.
Civil rights groups charge the system is being abused to deport undocumented immigrants who've been picked up on minor charges or committed no crime at all in this country. The governors of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts have notified federal immigration authorities they want out of S-Comm, and civil rights activists in Connecticut say Gov. Dannel Malloy should do the same.
“I think that now is the time ... that Connecticut should follow the lead of those who have decided to protect civil rights and have opted out,” says Sandy Staub, legal director for the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
A spokesman for the regional office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says “state and local jurisdictions cannot opt out from the program” once S-Comm has taken effect in an area. That's something of a surprise to many state and local officials around the country who were told in the past that participation in the Secure Communities program was voluntary.
Muneer Ahmad, a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School, says national statistics indicate that as many as 79 percent of immigrants caught in the S-Comm web since its inception in 2008 don't fall into the “worst of the worst” category federal officials claim is their intended target.
“The states were told one thing about targeting violent criminal offenders [only to find out] that it's been something else entirely in practice,” Ahmad says.
One of the main criticisms of the Secure Communities program is that it's a flawed substitute for some kind of comprehensive reform of federal immigration policies. Activists say the result is that undocumented immigrants, whose only crime was coming to America to make a better life for themselves or their families, are being picked up and deported without trial because they were in a minor fender-bender or went through a stop signal.
In Connecticut, the immigration issue isn't a partisan one. Republicans like state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield are very unhappy with the current system. “I'm not big for consequences being imposed on people who have been arrested but not convicted,” McKinney says. “It's why the federal government needs to get its act together and pass immigration reform,” which he believes should include both more secure borders and a realistic method for undocumented immigrants already here to achieve citizenship.
Hartford City Councilman Luis Cotto has begun a petition drive to help convince Malloy that Connecticut needs to end its participation in the program — if it can. Federal officials, who initially said the program was voluntary, are now arguing that states must participate.
One of Malloy's top advisers, Roy Occhiogrosso, says the governor as yet hasn't received any warnings or complaints about S-Comm in Connecticut.
“If someone does come to him, he's certainly willing to hear them out,” Occhiogrosso said in an e-mail reply to queries about Malloy's position on the issue. “But at this point, he sees no need to opt out of the program.”
The program has its defenders in Connecticut, including Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who has for years been enthusiastically promoting local police cooperation with federal officials in an effort to curb illegal immigration.
“People who commit minor crimes are not being deported,” Boughton insists. He calls Danbury's working with federal immigration enforcement officials “a very positive experience.”
Part of that experience for Danbury included paying $400,000 in March to settle a lawsuit brought by several undocumented immigrants who were picked up in a sting operation back in 2007. The plaintiffs, who were represented by Yale Law School students, will also get $250,000 from the feds as a result of the settlement.
The case involved a Danbury cop posing as a contractor and going to a location where immigrants often waited for job offers as day laborers. Instead of taking them to the alleged job site, police delivered the 11 men to federal immigration agents, who arrested them.**
“We didn't think we did anything wrong,” says Boughton, who was the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor last year. “I wouldn't describe it as a sting operation,” he adds, preferring to call it a “joint enforcement operation” in cooperation with the feds.
According to Boughton, Danbury agreed to settle on the advice of its insurance company, which didn't want the expense of a trial and will fork over the $400,000 to those immigrant workers. Their deportation case is apparently still pending.
Boughton's efforts to involve local police in immigration enforcement, as well as New Haven's controversial decision several years ago to issue city identification cards to undocumented immigrants, drew headlines.
S-Comm was begun under the George W. Bush administration, and the program has become a key element in President Barack Obama's immigration enforcement efforts. Participating local law enforcement agencies are able to access the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database, sending fingerprints of people they suspect as undocumented immigrants to ICE and getting back information on them from the feds.
“It's really just a computer terminal that hooks into the federal database,” explains Boughton.
According to ICE's website, there are now 1,379 “activated jurisdictions” across the nation participating in the S-Comm system. That's about 43 percent of all the local law enforcement agencies that ICE plans to have involved in the program by 2013.
Information provided by the agency website includes the statistics that 151,590 “convicted criminal aliens have been arrested or booked into ICE custody” since 2008, and that 77,160 of those have been deported.
The S-Comm program didn't officially kick off in Connecticut until June 2010, when a memorandum of understanding with ICE was signed by an official in the administration of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Chuck Jackson, public affairs officer for ICE's regional office in Boston, says there are now only 23 cities and towns in Connecticut, all in Fairfield County, where S-Comm is in operation. According to Jackson, 60 people have been deported from Connecticut since the program took effect here in 2010.
Michael Lawlor is Gov. Malloy's top criminal justice adviser and is a former state lawmaker as well as a former prosecutor. He says participation in the Secure Communities program is “really a town-by-town decision.” He says Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, along with a number of smaller cities and towns, have enacted ordinances or put in place local policies to prevent police from contacting immigration authorities about undocumented individuals involved in things like minor fender-benders or breach of peace incidents.
Lawlor says that most police departments in Connecticut “don't inquire about citizenship and immigrant status, especially with victims of crime and witnesses” unless an individual is being charged with a serious offense.
“We only check immigration status if we pick somebody up for a serious felony,” says Adam Joseph, a spokesman for the city of New Haven.
Even Boughton says police in his community aren't checking the citizenship of immigrants for minor infractions. “So if you're picked up for shoplifting in Danbury, you're not reported [to ICE],” Boughton says. “If you're picked up for driving under the influence, you're not reported.”
“I don't think there are a lot of people ... getting picked up for minor offenses [in Connecticut] and getting deported,” Lawlor says.
But there have been reports from other states that anybody who is booked into a local or state jail in areas where S-Comm operates has their fingerprints routinely sent to the feds — regardless of the seriousness of the alleged crime.
According to Lawlor, most Connecticut cops don't ask most immigrants about their status because it's going to make policework tougher in general. If the immigrant community is fearful that police are acting as pseudo-ICE agents, they're going to be scared to report any crime or talk to any cop.
But Ahmad argues that's exactly what S-Comm is doing. “It's breeding insecurity in communities, contrary to what ICE promised the program would do,” he says.
Peter Goselin is a Hartford labor lawyer who often represents undocumented workers in their battles for fair wages and treatment by employers. He says the Secure Communities program is “completely nontransparent” and does little for the cities and towns involved other than make immigrants fearful of cooperating with law enforcement and use up local police resources.
“Most people would be pretty upset if they found out the federal government was targeting any other section of the population in this fashion,” says Goselin.
ICE's Jackson explained in an e-mail response for this story that local communities participating in the system can't simply ask the feds to check a person's fingerprints for criminal records and not check immigration status.
“The local ICE field office, and not the state or local law enforcement agency, determines what immigration action enforcement action, if any, is appropriate,” Jackson said in his e-mail.
That lack of local or state control and oversight is a major concern, according to activists like the ACLU's Sandy Staub. She says there doesn't appear to be any information available about S-Comm data requests by Connecticut police or about what happens to undocumented immigrants here when they are reported to ICE.
“I don't know who's reporting it or who's collecting the information,” Staub says. “I don't think the federal government is, and if they are, they're not telling us about it.”
“ICE regularly analyzes the effectiveness of its enforcement programs, as it is currently doing with Secure Communities,” Jackson insisted in his e-mail, saying the agency will be glad to share the results with Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. (And presumably Connecticut.)
Some national figures are available, however. The New York Times reported last December that an analysis of federal data indicated “at least 30,000 illegal immigrants who were stopped for common traffic violations in the last three years have ended up in deportation.”
Mary E. Heffernan, a public safety official for Gov. Deval Patrick's administration in Massachusetts, stated in a June 3 letter to federal officials that more than 50 percent of the people deported from Boston under S-Comm were not criminals. She stated that only one if four of those deported from Boston had been convicted of a serious crime.
“I do worry about similar abuses in Connecticut,” Ahmad says. “There's no reason to think that the program would be operating any differently in Connecticut.”
** This story has been corrected. For more details on the correction, see this blogpost.