Has “Secure Communities” Really Secured Our Communities?


Immigration issues in the United States have historically been contentious among policy actors in terms of who can and cannot immigrate and naturalize, and what categories of noncitizens should not be allowed to assimilate. Interestingly, the dividing line between which noncitizens are welcome and which are unwelcome has frequently changed depending on socioeconomic, political, demographic, and geopolitical dynamics in American society. The target noncitizen groups for restriction and punishment have repeatedly changed over time.

Since the 1970s, however, the key target noncitizen group for restriction and punishment has been Latin Americans, especially Mexicans, in response to the unlawful inflow of unauthorized immigrants through the southwest border areas. The main immigration control policy was to enforce and remove such illegal immigrants. Such conventional policy framing of immigrant illegality for immigration enforcement actions has shifted since the passage of the 1996 federal immigration laws, and criminal aliens have become the target category for legitimating immigration enforcement policy. With such negative legal and social construction of noncitizens in terms of illegality and criminality, it consequently became possible for Washington politicians and policymakers to create an enforcement-only immigration policy regime in the United States.

The Secure Communities (“S-Comm”) program was created based on such an enforcement-only policy perspective. As a biometric (fingerprint) data sharing program between different levels of government, S-Comm was initiated in 2008 under the Bush administration as a pilot program, but it was rapidly expanded across all localities as a mandatory program under the Obama administration. As seen in the name of this program, the key goal of S-Comm is to make local communities safer via catching, detaining, and finally removing dangerous noncitizens. Such noncitizen enforcement policing can be fully carried out through an intergovernmental cooperative framework.

Stepped-up immigrant policing in their communities has ironically produced “insecure” communities through racial/ethnic targeting and pretextual arrests to maximize enforcement numbers, and resulted in “collateral damages” among their fellow community members.

Despite U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) repeated denial, the implementation of S-Comm is deeply based on an immigrant criminality perspective. This was indirectly supported by the staggered rollout scheme that federal immigration agencies selected for S-Comm implementation. Localities with early activation of S-Comm (those activating this program before October 2010) tend to be located in metropolitan areas and have Hispanic populations 4 times higher than those with late activation of this program. During the last 6 years, S-Comm deported a total of 396,626 noncitizens. However, according to the authors’ research, ICE’s enforcement actions through S-Comm show a picture very different from focusing on removing “dangerous” noncitizens. Ironically, in terms of the three levels of criminality, one in four noncitizen deportations from the 541 localities during a recent 2-year period (2011 – 2013) have been for noncriminal or immigration violations in those jurisdictions. Additionally, more than half of noncitizens deported from these 541 localities have been removed with Level 3 (minor charges) and noncriminal convictions during the same period. This shows that the current enforcement machine has been working in a biased way in the name of removing dangerous criminal aliens.



Source: Mean-level crime rate change before and after implementation of the Secure Communties program by class: Six key individual crime categories by the FBI Note: Each graph has a dotted vertical line indicating the beginning of the activation of the Secure Communities program, which differentiates results from before and after the implementation of this program. Using latent class analysis, localities were classified into three groups. Based on this classification, each graph has also four lines: a purple line for all 541 localities; a blue line for Class 1 localities; a red line for Class 2 localities; and a yellow-green line for Class 3 localities. Class 2 localities have active immigration enforcement policy participation, while other localities of other classes have inactive enforcement policy participation. The y-axis refers to crime rate (per 100,000 population), and the x-axis refers to time (year).

Finally, in spite of mass deportations during the last 6 years under S-Comm, the level of public safety in local communities has not significantly improved. This evidence is shown from the figure. Rates of six types of crimes at the community level have not shown any significant decline over 4 years (2010 – 2013). Considering the fact that the national crime trend has been declined during the last decennial, the figure showing crime rate changes before and after the implementation of S-Comm indicates that S-Comm has had fewer crime-prevention effects than were promised from the program’s key assumption about immigrant-crime nexus. Such a biased program assumption and logic under the S-Comm framework and the legitimatization of the targeting of Hispanics for enforcement actions necessarily brought about an implementation failure in U.S. deportation policy.

Stepped-up immigrant policing in their communities has ironically produced “insecure” communities through racial/ethnic targeting and pretextual arrests to maximize enforcement numbers, and resulted in “collateral damages” among their fellow community members. With serious debates and conflicts on the program’s relevancy and unintended enforcement outcomes during the last 6 years, DHS Director Jeh Johnson issued two policy memos in December 2014, in which he declared the discontinuation of S-Comm. Many migrant rights groups and localities celebrated and welcomed the end of S-Comm, and expected the creation of a new direction and discourse for a better immigration policy. However, in spite of the official ending of S-Comm, everything except the name of the program is continuing, including information sharing between governments, immigration detainer issuances, and deportation of noncitizens based on the levels of criminality. The implementation of S-Comm during the last 6 years offers us many suggestions: It is essential to set clear enforcement priorities, clearly define what categories of noncitizens are really dangerous and pose a serious threat to public safety and security, and minimize enforcement for noncitizens with minor charges or immigration violations.


Dongjae Jung  is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Public Administration and Policy at Arizona State University.


Photo Credit: TCPalm.com