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Should U.S. End Secure Communities? Sheriff Adrian Garcia Debates Immigrant Advocate Chris Newman

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Many are criticizing the Obama administration for unilaterally pushing ahead with a controversial federal immigration enforcement policy called Secure Communities that requires local police to forward fingerprints of every person they arrest to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In recent months, the governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and New York announced they are pulling out of the program, but now officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) say it is mandatory. ICE has also created a task force to study possible reforms. We host a debate on Secure Communities program with Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who helped ICE begin Secure Communities as a pilot program in Texas and is a member of the Secure Communities Task Force, and Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, one of the immigrant rights groups spearheading national organizing efforts against Secure Communities. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 18, 2011Undocumented Student Fanny Martinez Arrested Protesting Controversial Secure Communities Program
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As we just reported, the immigration enforcement program called Secure Communities is facing large protests from immigrant rights groups. Many are criticizing the Obama administration for unilaterally pushing ahead with the program, a controversial federal immigration enforcement policy that requires local police to forward fingerprints of every person they arrest to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In recent months, the governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and New York have announced that they are pulling out of the program.

AMY GOODMAN: But now officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, are saying the program is not voluntary, that local governments cannot opt out. This month, ICE sent a letter to local and state governors terminating all existing agreements with jurisdictions over the program. ICE said the agreements are no longer required to activate or operate Secure Communities.

Some Latino groups rallied Tuesday in cities around the country against the White House’s deportation policies, saying they may not support President Obama for reelection if he continues to deport record numbers of undocumented immigrants.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In fact, opposition to Secure Communities has come from many sources. Last Friday, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times called on Obama to shelve Secure Communities, quote, “The Obama administration should stop making matters worse by tinkering with a failed program to identify and deport dangerous illegal immigrants.”

Advocates note that the majority of people deported in many cities and states are innocent or have minor infractions like driving without a license.

Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs, defended Secure Communities in a post Tuesday on the White House blog. Muñoz wrote, quote, “Today more than half of all removals are people with criminal records. And among those removed who had no criminal records, more than two thirds were either apprehended as they crossed the border, were recent arrivals, or were repeat violators of immigration law, meaning that they had previously been deported. Those statistics matter.”

Muñoz went on to say, quote, “While we have more work to do, the statistics demonstrate that the strategy DHS put in place is working. At the same time, the Administration has also been open and receptive to feedback from communities across the country.”

AMY GOODMAN: Much of that feedback is directed toward a task force ICE has created to study possible reforms to Secure Communities. It includes 20 advocates and law enforcement officials. Last week, the task force held its first meeting in Dallas. Earlier this week, another meeting was held in Los Angeles. And as we just reported, Chicago hosted a meeting last night. All were met with hundreds of protesters.

Well, to discuss and debate the question of whether ICE can reform Secure Communities so that it prioritizes the deportation of dangerous criminals or whether, as the L.A. Times said, Obama should shelve it, we’re joined by two people who have direct experience with the program.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia is the first Latino sheriff in Houston, Texas. He oversees the nation’s third largest jail. [Edited for accuracy.] Sheriff Garcia is a member of the Secure Communities Task Force. He was meeting in Dallas last week.

We are also joined by Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, one of the immigrant rights groups spearheading national organizing efforts against Secure Communities.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Chris Newman, let’s begin with you. Why are you spearheading this movement against Secure Communities? And then we’ll have Sheriff Garcia respond.

CHRIS NEWMAN: Well, indeed, Amy, thanks for having me. I’m not spearheading this movement. People like Fanny and the brave students that exercised their protest yesterday are. And those students yesterday should be applauded for their courage and for their integrity. And we could only hope that the President and his senior staff would exhibit the same courage and integrity that those students had, as they join, I think, a proud history of student movements that have made our country stronger and our laws more just.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Sheriff Garcia, you’ve had direct experience with the program. Why is it necessary, given the absence, obviously, of a federal immigration policy that can deal adequately with the large numbers of undocumented we have in the country?

SHERIFF ADRIAN GARCIA: Well, the Secure Communities program has demonstrated that—the way we are implementing it here in Harris County—that it’s working. People who come through the county jail, having been arrested for a particular offense—probable cause, the element of probable cause has been met. People are being brought into the county jail. We process 100 percent of the inmates that come into the county jail through Secure Communities. We don’t segregate for color of skin, color of eyes, color of hair, or anything of that nature. One hundred percent of the people go through this process. And as a result, we’re finding a variety of folks of interest with questionable immigration status, and those individuals are then referred over to ICE for their ultimate determination. But it’s working here, and we believe that we have a model program here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And are you concerned or not that—obviously, when a person is arrested, they’re still innocent until proven guilty in a trial, or unless they plead. Are you concerned that—the effect on the general population of knowing that you are cooperating to this extent, in terms of their interfacing with law enforcement?

SHERIFF ADRIAN GARCIA: Well, I believe that on the ICE side of the process, that they have access to their hearings, and it is all a holistic process that occurs. If they’re convicted for their crime here, ICE looks at that, once their entire local issue is resolved. But it seems to be working well with ICE handling their side of it. They’re providing folks with the hearings, and they’re giving folks an opportunity, on their side of the process, access to all of the opportunities that should be available to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Newman, your response?

CHRIS NEWMAN: Well, I think the Secure Communities program is a demonstrable failure. In fact, the majority of people that have been identified and removed were not convicted of any serious crime. And I think the entanglement of local police in the enforcement of unjust federal immigration laws has diverted their attention. It’s certainly contributed to a fear of immigrants and conflated immigrants with criminals. It’s contributed to a fear, within the immigrant community, of police, which makes it, I think, more difficult for police and sheriffs to protect our communities.

And the effects on all of our civil rights and civil liberties remain unknown, as, you know, I think it’s now pretty clear that the racial profiling that occurs, and the violations of rights and due process, doesn’t occur at the point when people are fingerprinted; it occurs at the point when people are stopped and investigated out in the street. And, you know, the country is replete with examples of local law enforcement agencies that have used these new expanded powers as a pretext to terrorize immigrant communities.

And so, you know, I’m optimistic. I think that the program will be ended. I think that, as a policy matter, there’s a sort of galvanized sense that it just doesn’t make much sense. And I think that the lessons that we learn from the failure of Secure Communities, what has really become a Frankenstein, will be used, I think, to reform our immigration laws and fix what has already been a pretty broken intersection between immigration and criminal laws.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, three states have either suspended or refused to join Secure Communities, and all of them have cited public safety as one of their top concerns. Soon after Illinois Governor Pat Quinn tried to opt out in May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent a letter to ICE in June, alerting them to the state’s suspension of the program. He noted his administration had, quote, “received numerous complaints and questions about the purpose and implementation” of the program, and said his greatest concern is that, instead of targeting dangerous criminals, it is “compromising public safety by deterring witnesses to crime and others from working with law enforcement.” Two days later, Massachusetts said it would not agree to join the program, saying state law enforcement officials feared the program was “overly broad and may deter the reporting of criminal activity.”

Chief Garcia, how do you respond? Do you have similar concerns? And what kind of recommendations will you be making as a member of the new task force, in terms of changing the existing Secure Communities program?

SHERIFF ADRIAN GARCIA: Well, I’ll tell you that I’ve got 25 years of law enforcement experience in this local community. And the concern of interaction with law enforcement goes way beyond the existence of Secure Communities. That’s why we do a tremendous amount of outreach, encouraging folks to come forward to report crimes, to participate, to be witnesses. And I believe that that continues to be the case. People are making the right decisions for the right reasons, to help us take other individuals off the streets who are dangerous and a harm to their communities, coupled with the fact that the criminals that are—that have questionable immigration status, tend to victimize immigrants themselves. And so, that is why we have to continue to work together as a community. It’s what I advocate.

And the recommendations to ICE is really not to ICE, it’s to Congress. Let’s get moving on working and resolving the laws on immigration. And let’s make sure we come up with something that is practical for all communities across this country to use and to implement and give the communities something that they can count on.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a comment from David Martin, who recently retired from his position as deputy general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security. He now serves [on] ICE’s Secure Communities Task Force. He spoke about the balance between the rights of states and local jurisdictions and the power of the federal government on immigration enforcement. This is what he said on Wednesday on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

DAVID MARTIN: Well, I think it’s quite appropriate for the federal government to say that its priorities are going to prevail in the area of immigration. Now, those need to be wise priorities, and there’s been a lot of work on that front to try to deal with that. But I’d just like to challenge people in the immigrant advocacy community who say that, with regard to Secure Communities, ICE and Department of Homeland Security have to defer to the states. If you really mean that, then they need to defer to the states—states like Arizona or Alabama or Georgia that have adopted very harsh laws. The federal government, I think quite appropriately, has sued a couple of those states to block that and say no. Immigration—we want to cooperate—the federal government wants to cooperate with state and locals, but the federal government is the one that sets the standards and the priorities. And that—if that applies to Arizona, it has to apply to Illinois, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: That was David Martin, who recently retired from the position as deputy general counsel for Department of Homeland Security, now serves on ICE’s Secure Communities Task Force, speaking on Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, NPR station in Washington. Chris Newman, your response?

CHRIS NEWMAN: Well, I mean, that’s an extraordinarily—just an intellectually dishonest thing for him to say. And I’m shocked, frankly, that a professor of law would be, I just think, very dishonest. He knows full well that the laws do not support that conclusion. It may be a clever talking point, but I think that that kind of statement shows that he’s more interested in messaging and defending a policy that he helped construct while he was in DHS. And I, frankly, think he should resign from the task force.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sheriff Garcia, you mentioned that you believe that it’s imperative for Congress to move forward on immigration reform. There’s another sheriff in your part of the country, in the Southwest, Joe Arpaio, who’s made a national name for himself in the way that he deals with the immigration issues. What do you think, in Congress’s reform of immigration, are the key—the key reforms that are needed?

SHERIFF ADRIAN GARCIA: Well, I think the key reforms is that you have to look at the whole—the entire immigration policy together. Look, I’m the son of immigrant parents. I’m the only American born in my family. My family came here similar to Fanny’s concerns. They came here to this country to work, work hard, play by the rules. But they waited in line. They went through the application process. They requested access into this country. My father was a bracero; he was a guest worker. Those are elements that have to be brought into this process, so that the enforcement side, which—we’re a country of rule of law, and we have to have that side of it, as well. But we also have to address how we want people to come in. We have to address how people that are here get their situations resolved. We have to resolve the issue of children who were brought here, like Fanny and others. And we have to resolve the issue of kids like others who are born here but have parents who have questionable immigration statuses. Plus, we have to also address the issue for why nationals from other parts of the world feel compelled to come to this country and leave their homelands. That is another issue that has to be addressed by Congress. So, that is the totality of what is required, the leadership that’s required by Congress to fix this, so that we can fix it not for the short term, but for the long term.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday night, over 300 people walked out of a community forum in Los Angeles after demanding that Secure Communities task force members resign. Let me play a clip from that meeting, when one of the protesters addresses members of the task force after several people gave testimony about how they feared deportation of their family members and called for an end to the program.

PROTESTER: We welcome you. We welcome you to Los Angeles. We welcome you to our communities. And people have told you their stories with humility and respect. And now, we come here to you and ask you, humbly and with respect, will you resign from this task force? Will you resign and stand with us and call for a termination of this program?

PROTESTERS: Resign from this task force! Resign from this task force! Resign from this task force!

AMY GOODMAN: That was from the meeting in Los Angeles. Chris Newman, it’s where you are, one of the organizers of the day laborers organization. Talk about this call for task force members to resign rather than participate in developing a plan to reform S-Comm, Secure Communities.

CHRIS NEWMAN: Well, you know, Secure Communities is a program that has been built on lies since its very naming, since its inception in October of 2008. DHS has consistently lied about the program to state partners and to police and sheriffs, like Sheriff Garcia. And frankly, they’ve lost all credibility with the American public. And the task force itself is just more—more lies. And I think there are earnest participation from task force members who would like to, you know, identify problems with Secure Communities, but it’s falling on deaf ears. DHS, I think, has used the task force as a political gesture to undermine the policy choices of governors in New York, Illinois and Massachusetts, and other governors, frankly, who wanted out of the program.

And the problem is that the task force puts people into an uncomfortable position, of people who understand that there are problems with Secure Communities—they all of a sudden get put in the position of actually defending the program, like Sheriff Garcia, I think, is in the unenviable position right now. And I think that that puts him, frankly, and the side of history with people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio and others like him who have continued to try to treat immigrants as criminals and not really stood up to the fact that our immigration laws are unjust. And there needs to, I think, be courage on the part of the task force members, and they need to stand, I think, with the growing consensus that this is just a failed program. And I think more and more people are asking people to resign off of what is perceived to be, by everyone, a sham effort by DHS, frankly just more of a cover-up for the way in which they’ve botched this program since its inception.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we will continue to cover this issue. I want to thank you, Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Los Angeles, and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, first Latino sheriff in Houston, Texas, oversees the nation’s third largest jail, helped ICE begin Secure Communities as a pilot program in Texas. Sheriff Garcia is a member of DHS’s Secure Communities Task Force.

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