By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Last week, President Obama rolled out significant changes to his administration’s immigration enforcement program with a televised announcement and a series of Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) memos detailing the changes. Since then, immigrants’ rights advocates have been poring over the memos trying to determine whether they foretell a new dawn for immigration enforcement or more of the same misguided and destructive immigration enforcement practices that for years have torn apart families at an alarming rate.
Not all of the announcements were good. The President announced that he will continue to pour resources into policing the southern border by further bulking up the largest law enforcement agency in the country—Customs and Border Protection—which has an appalling track record of violence without accountability.
But the new policies do contain much to celebrate, like executive actions that could temporarily shield more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation by expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and offering new relief from deportation for certain immigrant parents with children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.
Among other positive changes, President Obama announced policies ending the controversial Secure Communities (“S-COMM”) program and constraining immigration authorities’ much-criticized use of ICE detainers. S-COMM is dead, to be replaced by something called the Priority Enforcement Program (“PEP”). It remains to be seen, however, just how much the problems that plagued S-COMM will persist under PEP.
Havoc Wreaked by S-COMM and Detainers
Secure Communities was, at its core, a program of collaboration between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement agencies that used local resources to identify people subject to deportation. Under Secure Communities, every time anyone was arrested and booked by a police agency, their fingerprints were run through DHS’s immigration database. The lynchpin of S-COMM was the ICE detainer (or “immigration hold”), a request from ICE to a local law enforcement agency to imprison someone in custody past the time when they would otherwise be released from the criminal justice system in order to give ICE extra time to investigate the person’s immigration status. Although Secure Communities was intended to focus immigration enforcement resources on people with serious criminal convictions, in reality, S-COMM ensnared non-citizens from all backgrounds, fueling the mass deportation of valuable members of society and ripping apart families. Deportations reached record highs on President Obama’s watch.
The ACLU’s Detainer Litigation and Advocacy
The ACLU has long had concerns about the myriad civil liberties problems posed by S-COMM and ICE detainers. In March 2014, I testified at a Philadelphia City Council hearing that ICE detainers are often issued without any legal basis, can lead to racial profiling, and undermine trust in the police, threatening everyone’s safety.
In Pennsylvania, the kind of routine collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration officers engendered by S-COMM led to the illegal 3-day imprisonment in Lehigh County Prison of Ernesto Galarza, a U.S. citizen born in New Jersey, on an immigration detainer. After he was arrested on criminal charges (of which he was later acquitted), local police racially profiled him as being an undocumented immigrant and notified ICE of his arrest. ICE then issued a detainer to give itself more time to investigate Mr. Galarza’s immigration status. So when Mr. Galarza posted bail, instead of being released and reunited with his family, he was held for 3 more days, without any explanation or any opportunity to demonstrate his U.S. citizenship.
The ACLU and ACLU of Pennsylvania sued, and on March 4, 2014, won a huge victory when the Third Circuit became the first federal Court of Appeals to rule that local agencies do not have to comply with ICE detainer requests, and can be held liable for their role in causing an unlawful detention when there is no constitutionally valid basis for the detainer. In light of that ruling, in April 2014, Lehigh County paid Mr. Galarza $95,000 to settle his case and agreed to adopt a policy of no longer honoring ICE detainers without a court order.
Shortly after the Galarza ruling, Mayor Nutter issued an executive order directing Philadelphia facilities not to honor any ICE detainer requests without a judicial warrant. In August 2014, the ACLU-PA, working with PICC, Juntos, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, and NDLON, wrote to county officials all over the commonwealth to alert them to the court ruling in Galarza and urge them to adopt local policies of declining ICE detainer requests that are not accompanied by a judicial warrant. At last count, 40% of the counties in Pennsylvania reported that their facilities will no longer honor ICE detainer requests without a court order.
The End of S-COMM and Routine Detainers
Last week, the President acknowledged the many failings of S-COMM and the problematic use of detainers and discontinued Secure Communities:
“[S-COMM] has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws. Governors, mayors, and state and local law enforcement officials around the country have increasingly refused to cooperate with the program, and many have issued executive orders or signed laws prohibiting such cooperation. A number of federal courts have rejected the authority of state and local law enforcement agencies to detain immigrants pursuant to federal detainers issued under the current Secure Communities program.”
Under the new executive action, S-COMM will be replaced by the “Priority Enforcement Program” (or “PEP”). S-COMM and PEP have some features in common. Importantly, fingerprint-sharing of all arrestees with DHS for immigration enforcement purposes will continue under PEP—without any limitations. And DHS can still ask local law enforcement agencies and jails for notification when a non-citizen is scheduled to be released from local custody. But when it comes to actually issuing detainers and taking non-citizens into federal custody for immigration proceedings, PEP appears to constrain federal agents in ways that S-COMM did not.
According to DHS, under PEP, ICE will seek to transfer from local custody into immigration detention only certain “priority” non-citizens, including anyone believed by ICE to pose a threat to national security, as well as people engaged in terrorism or gang activity or convicted of certain crimes (any non-immigration-related felonies or a significant misdemeanor or 3 or more non-immigration-related misdemeanors). Further, under PEP, ICE is only permitted to issue detainers asking for a local agency to detain someone for ICE in “special circumstances” and only if the person is subject to a final order of removal or ICE has “other sufficient probable cause” to believe that the person is deportable.
DHS has yet to clarify the exact contours of ICE’s marching orders under these new policies; the policy memos are susceptible to several interpretations. And only time will tell how PEP is actually implemented. But the President’s acknowledgement that our immigration system badly needs fixing and that S-COMM was a failure—and his efforts to try to fix what he can—are welcome signs of change.
Molly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights.