Should local police have to give fingerprints to the Feds?

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You’ve heard of the DREAM Act, the bill that would offer a path to legal residency to great students that arrived in the US illegally when they were children. You’ve probably heard of SB 1070, Arizona’s law making it a state crime for non-citizens to be without their registration documents. But you might not have heard about Secure Communities, even though it’s a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s immigration policy, and it’s igniting plenty of controversy here in DC. And now more details are leaking out about how DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has tried to work with the program.

Our colleague Rina Palta has an excellent rundown of what Secure Communities is:

Secure Communities is a fingerprint sharing program between local law enforcement and federal immigration control. When a person is arrested in say, San Francisco or Oakland, and they’re booked in the county jail, local deputies take their fingerprints. Instantly, those fingerprints travel to the California Department of Justice and to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. That’s so if someone is booked on something like drunk driving, or is arrested by mistake, or the charges against them are dropped, the system can check and see if the person is wanted for any crime before the Sheriff releases him or her. Now, because of Secure Communities, these fingerprints also go to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

As Rina goes on to explain, the program has had a cool reception in many cities. Critics charge that non-criminals who happen to be arrested under the program can get deported without ever being convicted of a crime. And they worry that the law ruins the relationship between local police and immigrant communities, that people will stop reporting crimes and cooperating with officers to solve them.

For these reasons and others, DC has led the fight against Secure Communities. Last year, the City Council voted unanimously to ban the program in the District:

“This is like something out of George Orwell. This is really ‘insecure communities,’” argues District Council member Jim Graham, who represents an area that is home to many of the District’s immigrants. Several Council members said the program could lead to more laws like the one passed in Arizona, which they described as “horrific.”

Washington, D.C., has a long history of resisting collaboration with federal immigration officials. A 1984 memorandum from Mayor Marion Barry Jr. forbids city agencies, officers, and employees from asking about citizenship or residency. So when the District’s police chief quietly signed on to the program last November without consulting the City Council, Graham was outraged. “This is the type of thing that there are so many questions about, so many suspicions about, that it’s best that we just not do it,” he said during a committee meeting in March.

But there’s one big problem with Graham’s conclusion that we “not do” Secure Communities: It turns out cities and states aren’t being allowed to opt out of the program. A release of thousands of pages of correspondence between federal, state and local officials about the program show the Obama administration as taking an increasingly hard line on the position that Secure Communities is mandatory.

Shankar Vedantam sifted through the documents to shed more light on Cathy Lanier’s role in the discussions over Secure Communities in the Washington Post this weekend. She “worked behind the scenes last year with federal officials to redesign the program in potentially far-reaching ways,” reports Vedantam. “In an interview, Lanier said that she had hoped to find a middle ground that targeted violent and dangerous offenders for immigration checks while withholding the fingerprints of suspects whom police picked up for minor offenses. ‘In the case of domestic violence, or if it is a minor misdemeanor case, there is a concern people will not come forward and report it,’ she said, explaining why she thought suspects picked up in minor crimes should not be referred for an immigration status check.”

After the Council voted to ban the program, Vedantam reports, “Lanier said she broke off the discussion with federal officials and pulled out of the program.”

For more on this issue, check out the stellar reporting that’s been happening at The Informant, tracking San Francisco’s efforts to opt out of Secure Communities. And you can also read through some of the documents depicting the internal struggles over the program.