Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is trying to throw another wrench into a key immigration-enforcement program of President Obama’s administration, saying it ensnares too many people and erodes trust in local police.
An August 18 letter from the governor’s office to John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, hints about a possible legal challenge and asks the federal agency to contact all 26 Illinois counties that have agreed to participate in the program, called Secure Communities, to confirm they still want to take part.
“This is the least that ICE can do,” says the letter, signed by John Schomberg, Quinn’s general counsel. “These counties signed up, along with the state, for a Secure Communities that is far different from the program” ICE first presented.
The Obama administration says the program helps focus immigration enforcement on repeat immigration violators and dangerous criminals, such as murderers and kidnappers.
ICE reports that Secure Communities has led to the deportation of more than 86,000 convicted criminals. Data from the agency show that about half of those immigrants were convicted of misdemeanors, not felonies.
The program has led to the deportation of another 34,000 people not convicted of any crime. Voicing concerns about them, Quinn withdrew Illinois from Secure Communities in May. New York and Massachusetts followed with similar steps.
But an August 5 letter from Morton to governors says states no longer have any choice and that Secure Communities will extend to all local law-enforcement jurisdictions in the United States by 2013. An addendum to the letter describes changes in the program. Those include the elimination of a state role in conveying data for the fingerprints.
"These counties signed up, along with the state, for a Secure Communities that is far different from the program"
--John Schomberg, Quinn’s general counsel
Mark Fleming, an attorney with the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, says ICE could end up in court if Secure Communities lacks the consent of the local jurisdictions. “The governor’s office may be laying the groundwork for a legal challenge,” Fleming says.
Fleming points to 1990s rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming that the 10th Amendment bars Congress from compelling state and local governments to administer federal regulations.
Asked whether Illinois officials are cooking up a lawsuit, a Quinn spokeswoman refers to Schomberg’s letter, which says the governor’s office “will continue to monitor and evaluate” Secure Communities and “consider all of the state’s options.”
ICE representatives did not respond to WBEZ requests for comment on whether Secure Communities violates the 10th Amendment.
The Obama administration lately has downplayed agreements through which it first brought state and local governments into the federal initiative. “We wanted to work with the locals and let them know about the program,” says Jon Gurule, an ICE official who helped set up Secure Communities.
“But, from the operational side, it’s federal information sharing between two federal agencies,” Gurule adds, referring to ICE and the FBI. “And it’s congressionally mandated.”
If ICE checks in with the Illinois counties, as the Illinois letter asks, the federal agency would find some with second thoughts about joining Secure Communities. “If they honor the governor’s request, I would not want to partake in it,” says Patrick Perez, sheriff of west suburban Kane County, part of the program since 2009.
“The program has not turned out to be what it was supposed to be,” Perez says, pointing to the deportation of non-criminals. “People in the Hispanic community have become very reticent to contact police if they’re victims of crime because they’re fearful that . . . they will be deported.”
The federal initiative also has defenders. “My life has been destroyed by all of this cheap, foreign scab labor,” says a 56-year-old network engineer in Chicago, blaming immigrants for his unemployment and asking that his name not be published because he’s job hunting. “Whether it’s illegal aliens or foreign legal workers, they’re hurting American citizens.”
“Secure Communities removes the criminals,” he says, “and that’s a start.”