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.