For years, immigrant rights activists have fought to shut down a controversial immigration enforcement program operating in jails in Georgia and across the nation.
Started during the George W. Bush administration, the Secure Communities program works by comparing inmates’ fingerprints against immigration records in federal databases. Supporters say the program has substantially curbed illegal immigration. Critics say it ensnares low-level offenders with families and deep roots in the U.S.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson cited many of the concerns surrounding the program last month when he announced it would be replaced. The program’s detractors are cheering the announcement. But their reactions have been tempered by the unknown. The government has not offered many details about what will replace the program, what it will cost and when it will be up and running.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s decision is already creating ripple effects in Georgia. DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann announced last week that his office had revamped its policies to jibe with other changes Johnson has announced in connection with the demise of the Secure Communities program.
At issue are detainers, or federal requests for jails to hold inmates beyond the time they would otherwise be released. This gives immigration authorities time to take custody of those flagged by Secure Communities and attempt to deport them. Mann said his office will no longer honor such requests without a warrant or “sufficient probable cause.” He pointed to federal court rulings that say jailing people based on these detainers can violate their constitutional rights.
DeKalb is the third Georgia county to adopt such a policy. Before the federal government disclosed the changes last month, the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office announced it would no longer comply with ICE detainers. And in September, Fulton County commissioners passed a resolution urging Sheriff Ted Jackson to do the same. More than 100 other jurisdictions from across the country have adopted policies or laws limiting compliance with the detainers, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
Johnson addressed the controversy in a Nov. 20 memo, saying federal immigration officials will instead begin sending jails “requests for notification” when wanted inmates are about to be released. He added, however, that the government could still ask jails to further detain inmates so long as they have been ordered deported “or there is other sufficient probable cause” showing they are deportable.
As for Secure Communities, Johnson said it will be replaced by another fingerprint-sharing system called the Priority Enforcement Program. The new system, he said, will focus on national security threats, convicted felons and gang members. Those convicted of “significant” misdemeanors or three or more misdemeanors will also be targeted. Asked what the new program will cost and when it would begin, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would say only that it expects to release additional information in the coming weeks.
Since Secure Communities first started in 2008 in Harris County, Texas, the government has removed from the U.S. 381,406 immigrants without legal status, federal records show. Of those, 12,525 were living in Georgia.
In Georgia, the largest single group of people deported through the system had committed the least serious offenses — those punishable by less than one year behind bars, records show. They account for 31 percent of the Georgia inmates deported. Further, 28 percent of those expelled from Georgia had committed the most serious crimes, including murder, rape or sexual abuse of a minor.
For example, the DeKalb jail, which houses tens of thousands of inmates annually, has received just 145 detainers from ICE as of Sept. 1 of this year. Of those, 46 were for those charged with felonies — including a murder, rape and robbery — and 99 were for people charged with misdemeanors, including driving without a license. ICE took custody of 104 of them. Mann, the DeKalb sheriff, said it make sense for the federal government to focus on deporting the most serious offenders.
“Obviously, we are all struggling with resources,” he said. “They can’t handle everyone that is in the system, so they are going to target the more violent, more serious folks. And I can understand that.”
Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway — who have taken an aggressive stance against illegal immigration — referred questions about the changes to ICE. A spokeswoman for Warren said he did not want to comment because he “is not aware of the plan or the impact it may have on our facility.”
Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill did not respond to a request for comment. A top official in the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office predicted there wouldn’t be much of an impact in his county’s jail because foreign-born people account for only a sliver of those booked in.
Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that advocates tighter immigration controls, decried the changes announced by the Obama administration.
“This only benefits criminals and people who should be deported,” she said.
Azadeh Shahshahani, an ardent critic of the Secure Communities program, hailed the decision to replace it, saying the Obama administration has gotten the message that the public views it as “fundamentally flawed and in need of a drastic makeover.”
“What is less clear,” said Shahshahani, the director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, “is whether Secretary Johnson’s instructions will be implemented on the local level in a manner that constitutes substantial change, or more of the same with a different name.”