Thursday, September 01, 2011

Quinn, lawmakers and advocates push back on immigration policy

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn, lawmakers, law enforcement officials and immigrants rights groups are pushing back after the federal government said the state could not opt out of an immigration program.

Quinn sent a letter to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in May that said Illinois was pulling out of the Secure Communities program. Under Secure Communities, local law enforcement agencies share fingerprints of arrestees so the feds can check their immigration status. The program was billed as a way to deport hardened criminals who are here illegally. Quinn wants to pull Illinois from the program because he says the ICE is using the information to deport petty offenders and people who have never been convicted of a crime. He froze enrollment in the program in November, but 26 counties signed up before the freeze.

However, the ICE told Quinn and 37 other governors earlier this month that the agency does not need an agreement from the states to administer Secure Communities. The ICE plans to implement Secure Communities nationwide by 2013. The letter sent to states said the program has undergone changes and now focuses its “limited resources” to those individuals who “pose a threat to public safety or who have flagrantly violated the nation’s immigrations laws.” It also says the Department of Homeland Security plans to consider changing the way the program “addresses” people arrested for minor violations, such as traffic offenses.

Quinn responded by asking ICE to contact law enforcement in each of the 26 counties and confirm their continued desire to participate in Secure Communities. The letter written by John Schomberg, Quinn’s general counsel, to John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the program has the opposite effect of its stated goal. “Rather than making our communities safer, the program’s flawed implementation divides communities and families and makes the people of Illinois less inclined to reach out to law enforcement. A program that was supposed to be targeted toward individuals convicted of serious crimes … instead frequently targets individuals who have been convicted of no crimes at all — the mother on her way to work; the father dropping his kids off at school,” the letter said. Schomberg also voiced concern about the agency’s plans to expand Secure Communities. He writes, “[The] ICE’s solution to a troubled program is to make in mandatory and nationwide.”

Brie Callahan, a Quinn spokesperson, said that ICE has an obligation to inform counties about “what the program is, was and has become.” She said some counties requested that the state pull out of Secure Communities. Callahan said the state has no immediate plans to take the feds to court over the issue.

A group of state legislators, U.S. representatives, Chicago aldermen, religious figures, law enforcement officials and immigration reform advocates also wrote to Morton denouncing ICE’s decision to override states that wanted to drop out. Many of the public officials named in the letter are Democrats. However, Republican Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran signed on in support. The group says that the agency jumped the gun by issuing an edict before a Department of Homeland Security task force could make recommendations. “We call upon you immediately to halt the Secure Communities program and work to reshape enforcement policy so that they respect local law enforcement, immigrant families and the will of our governor and our people,” the letter said.

While Illinois may not plan to sue over the program, the Heartland Alliances National Immigration Justice Center has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security challenging the constitutionality of aspects of Secure Communities. “Once detained, immigrants face monumental challenges to remain in the United States. Unlike individuals incarcerated in the criminal justice system, immigrants in deportation proceedings — a majority of whom have never been convicted of a serious crime — are not provided court appointed lawyers. They are detained in isolated jails and prisons without access to attorneys and family because phones at facilities seldom work, and U.S. mail is delayed indefinitely. The immigration detention system fueled by the Secure Communities program erodes immigrants’ fundamental procedural protections,” Mony Ruiz-Velasco, director of legal services for the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, said while testifying at a recent Chicago hearing on the program.

For more on conflicts between states and the federal government over immigration policy see Illinois Issues June 2011

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