Fewer undocumented immigrants stopped for traffic violations will face deportation, under newly unveiled changes to a prominent immigration enforcement program.
Known as Secure Communities, the program compels state and local law enforcement officers to enter the fingerprints of anyone they detain into a federal database. Federal immigration officials can cross-reference those fingerprints and initiate deportation proceedings if the detained person is in the country illegally.
As a result, many undocumented immigrants have been deported because of minor breaches like broken tail lights and speeding. The number of deportations stemming from a traffic stop increased sharply last year, amplifying immigration advocates' critique that the Obama administration is failing in its stated goal of targeting immigrants who have criminal records or could undermine public safety.
A task force convened by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and comprised of law enforcement officials, immigration attorneys and immigration enforcement union representatives, among others, recently issued a report detailing how critics of Secure Communities believe it is breaking apart families and breeding distrust of law enforcement.
The report also underscored the Obama administration's commitment to having immigration agents exercise prosecutorial discretion, a sweeping policy change in which the administration has directed agents to focus its resources on immigrants with significant criminal records rather than low-level offenders. Deporting immigrants for minor traffic breaches undercuts these priorities, the report's authors wrote.
Many state and local officials believed they were joining a program targeting serious offenders by participating in Secure Communities, the report's authors wrote, but the impact of Secure Communities has not been limited to convicted criminals, dangerous and violent offenders, or threats to public safety and national security.
In response to the report, the Department of Homeland Security announced changes to how officials will handle immigrants detained at traffic stops. The reform affects immigrants without any prior criminal record. Federal agents will only request that local officers hold immigrants arrested at traffic stops if those immigrants are subsequently convicted. The change will not apply to immigrants stopped for drunk driving.
ICE agrees that enforcement action based solely on a charge for a minor traffic offense is generally not an efficient use of government resources, the Department of Homeland Security report says.
The Obama administration inherited Secure Communities from the Bush administration and has moved to expand its reach, touting the initiative as an effective way to combat illegal immigration. But the program has faced pushback from states and municipalities concerned that the program is ineffective and unfairly punishes non-criminal immigrants. The Obama administration overrode the objections of New York, Illinois and Massachusetts -- all of whom sought to suspend their participation in the program.
The criticism of Secure Communities parallels objections to an Arizona law that requires police officers to check the immigration status of people who they suspect to be illegal immigrants. That law was challenged by the Obama administration and was taken up last week by the United States Supreme Court.