NIJC Message at Chicago Secure Communities Hearing: End Flawed Program that Shatters Families, Erodes Justice

August 17, 2011

Hearing Testimony of Mony Ruiz-Velasco, Director of Legal Services, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center

Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) calls on the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to immediately end the flawed and erroneously named Secure Communities program, which has created a fast-track deportation system that deprives immigrants of basic justice.

ICE has convened this public hearing to discuss the Secure Communities program. But given the program’s complete and obvious failure, talking about it is not enough. President Obama must take immediate action to make our communities secure and end the Secure Communities program.

NIJC represents hundreds of immigrants who have been swept up in the Secure Communities program and other local law enforcement programs initiated by ICE. The Secure Communities program undermines police trust within communities, particularly among crime victims and witnesses. It encourages racial profiling. It diverts scarce local police resources. And it violates due process protections.

While ICE claims to focus on “serious criminal offenders,” the numbers don’t back that up. ICE’s statistics as of February 28, 2011, show that more than 80 percent of people deported from Illinois under the Secure Communities program had never been convicted of a serious crime. A review of NIJC’s detention cases since June shows that nearly half of our clients in ICE custody had either never committed a crime or had committed only a minor traffic offense. Many of these men and women may be entitled to legal relief and could remain with their families in the United States. But because of the Secure Communities program dragnet, they are thrust into immigration proceedings and face detention and deportation without understanding their rights and without access to legal counsel.

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.

Typically, our clients are seeking asylum, are victims of crime and domestic violence, or are long-term residents with extensive and established community ties. They have come here to escape persecution and abuse. They have come in search of a better life and with a willingness to contribute to our communities. Many do have legal options to remain with their families in the United States. But the U.S. immigration enforcement system has cast its net so widely that thousands of immigrants who are not “serious criminal offenders” are suddenly and arbitrarily entangled in the deportation net. Those who cannot find lawyers are often deported and face persecution and abuse.

ICE has the authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion in favor of victims and witnesses of crime and for others without violent criminal records who pose no threat to the community. In a June memo, ICE Director John Morton affirmed the agency’s ability to exercise this right. But since June, it has failed to do so. We continue to see and represent individuals in detention who have no criminal record or who have committed only a minor offense. The urgent need for legal representation only intensifies with the current reality of increased enforcement.

President Obama, on behalf of the men, women, and communities who suffer under this program, we ask you to make our communities secure and to restore America’s commitment to justice by ending the Secure Communities program.

Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center (www.immigrantjustice.org) is a Chicago-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education.