Posted on February 16, 2011

‘Voluntary’ Immigration Program Not So Voluntary

Suzanne Gamboa, Comcast News, February 16, 2011

A voluntary program to run all criminal suspects’ fingerprints through an immigration database was only voluntary until cities refused to participate, recently released documents show. The Obama administration then tightened the rules so that cities had no choice but to have the fingerprints checked.

Thousands of documents made public by the Homeland Security Department provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the administration scrambled to quiet the criticism and negative publicity surrounding the immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities.

The administration rewrote the program’s participation rules, the documents show, considered withholding federal funding and FBI information from resisters and eventually dug up case law to justify requiring cooperation.

Throughout the turmoil, according to the documents, top officials knew they would get local resistance and were advised in late 2009 that the fingerprints could be checked against the immigration database without local buy-in.

“The SC (Secure Communities) initiative will remain voluntary at the state and local level. . . . Until such time as localities begin to push back on participation, we will continue with this current line of thinking,” says an e-mail written by Randi Greenberg, the communications and outreach chief of the program. {snip}

The pushback came.

Washington, D.C.; Cook County, Ill.; Santa Clara, Calif.; Arlington, Va.; San Francisco; Philadelphia; and the states of Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado either raised questions or tried to avoid participating, according to the documents. The communities are only a small percentage of more than 1,000 that willingly became part of the program or didn’t oppose the state signing them up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

By fall of last year, ICE decided local officials could not stop immigration officials from culling the fingerprints. The locals could only refuse to receive the information from the federal government on the immigration status of people they were holding in their jails. Local officials, however, still had to hold non-citizens for ICE if asked.


In a statement, ICE repeated what it is now telling local officials: The fingerprint sharing is between federal agencies, and local communities can’t opt out of sending fingerprints to the federal government. Their only choice, ICE says, is to not receive the results of the fingerprint check, leaving them vulnerable to claims that they don’t care about illegal immigrants in their jail.


Opposition from the few resisters grew strong enough to create significant angst within ICE. E-mails show month after month of wrestling with how the agency would respond when it was asked whether a local jurisdiction could “opt out” of Secure Communities. In some months, the issue appears to be settled, only to be followed by another string of e-mail exchanges on whether communities could opt out.


Opposition in San Francisco and Santa Clara, Calif., drew queries from Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, then the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee. She also looped in Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, elevating the issue and the anxiety over the program.

Although Lofgren had told ICE in May that she was satisfied with an explanation on local participation, she said in her July 7 letter that “there appears to be significant confusion about how local law enforcement agencies may ‘opt out’ of participating in Secure Communities.”