Secure Communities: A Fact Sheet


November 29, 2011

While the implementation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the state/local partnership agreements known as the 287(g) program has been a source of great controversy, it is far from the only tool ICE uses to engage state and local law enforcement in immigration control. Most notably, the Secure Communities Program, which launched in March 2008, has been held out as a simplified model for state and local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. This fact sheet lays out the basics of Secure Communities program, how it works, key areas of concern and recommendations on how to improve the program.

What is Secure Communities?

Secure Communities is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. Under Secure Communities, participating jails submit arrestees’ fingerprints not only to criminal databases, but to immigration databases as well, allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) access to information on individuals held in jails. Unlike other ICE-local partnerships, Secure Communities gives ICE a technological, not physical, presence in prisons and jails. Unlike the 287(g) program, no local law-enforcement agents are deputized to enforce immigration laws through Secure Communities.

As of September 27, 2011, Secure Communities was available in 1,595 jurisdictions in 44 states and territories. ICE plans to implement Secure Communities in each of the 3,100 state and local jails across the country by 2013. ICE reported that, as of September 30, 2011, over 11,000,000 fingerprint submissions have resulted in 692,788 database matches. As a result of Secure Communities, ICE had removed more than 142,000 persons.

How does Secure Communities work?

When an individual is booked into a jail, his or her fingerprints are regularly sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to be checked against criminal databases. With Secure Communities, the FBI then sends the fingerprints to ICE, where they are checked against the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program (US-VISIT) and the Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). This fingerprint check allows state and local law enforcement and ICE automatically and immediately to search the databases for an individual’s criminal and immigration history.

If there is a database “hit,” meaning that the arrested person is matched to a record indicating a potential immigration violation, ICE and the local law-enforcement authorities are notified. ICE then evaluates each case to determine the individual’s immigration status and whether any action is necessary or appropriate based on agency priorities. In most cases, ICE will issue a detainer against the jailed individual. A detainer is a request from ICE to the arresting agency to notify ICE before it releases the noncitizen so that ICE has the opportunity to decide whether the individual should be transferred to federal custody rather than released.

ICE describes Secure Communities as “interoperability” between FBI and DHS databases. However, most people believe that Secure Communities includes the entire process that begins with the arrest of the individual by a local police officer and ends with ICE enforcement actions. Originally, ICE entered into Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) with State Identification Bureaus, which are responsible for data sharing between the state and the federal government. Most believed that states had the option not to enter into the MOA, or to terminate the MOA if they no longer wanted to participate in the program. However, in August 2011, ICE rescinded all signed MOAs and announced that no signed agreement was necessary for the data sharing to take place, and that the program is mandatory for all jurisdictions.

What are the concerns about Secure Communities?

  • Who does the program target? ICE has stated that it “prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, repeat immigration violators, and “the most dangerous and violent offenders.” However, the program has not focused exclusively on convicted criminals, dangerous and violent offenders, or threats to public safety and national security. According to DHS data, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, 26% of all Secure Communities deportations were immigrants with Level 1 convictions; 19% of those deported had Level 2 convictions; and 29% were individuals convicted of Level 3 crimes (minor crimes resulting in sentences of less than one year). Twenty-six percent of those deported had immigration violations and no criminal convictions. ICE statistics show that some jurisdictions’ numbers for Level 3 and non-criminal deportations are well above the national average.

  • Obstacles to community policing. Unlike the 287(g) program, Secure Communities does not require an MOA between ICE and the local jail, sheriff, or police department, and local police officers are not directly enforcing federal immigration laws. Nonetheless, there are still concerns about local police being seen as immigration agents. If ICE maintains a presence—even a technological presence—in a local jail, the public will likely associate the local law-enforcement agency with immigration enforcement. Since ICE announced that the program is now mandatory for all jurisdictions, local communities will automatically be included in the data sharing. While this decision may be challenged in court or may be subject to other kinds of limitations, such as local communities declining to receive the information, the link between federal and local enforcement is now definitive.

  • Profiling and pretextual arrests. There is a concern that police officers working in areas that have Secure Communities in their local jails may have an incentive, or at least the ability, to make arrests based on race or ethnicity, or to make pretextual arrests of persons they suspect to be in violation of immigration laws, in order to have them run through immigration databases once they are jailed.

  • Opting out. Secure Communities raises serious questions about the relationship between federal and local law-enforcement agencies, and about local communities’ ability to weigh in on important decisions that affect them. Since the program’s inception, ICE has provided confusing, and sometimes contradictory, statements about whether localities could decline to participate in the program. Most recently, ICE announced that it had withdrawn all existing MOAs with states, that MOAs were not necessary, and that it would proceed with the program’s expansion unilaterally. 

  • Lack of clear complaint mechanisms. Given the wide range of concerns about Secure Communities, it is essential that there be a complaint or redress procedure for individuals who believe they have been erroneously identified by DHS databases or who believe a DHS detainer has been issued in error. While there is a complaint procedure through the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (OCRCL), there is continuing concern about immigrants’ lack of access to information about complaint procedures and OCRCL’s capacity to handle the complaints it receives.

  • Lack of Oversight and Transparency. There has been a marked lack of transparency about the Secure Communities program, and information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request indicates that ICE has mislead the public about various aspects of the program. Reports have found that ICE has an uneven track record in terms of supervising its local partnerships, and there are concerns about the level of oversight and transparency associated with Secure Communities.

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