By Jamey Dunn
The federal government says it does not need the state’s permission to continue an immigration enforcement program that Gov. Pat Quinn opted out of in May.
Quinn wanted to pull Illinois out of the Secure Communities program, which calls upon participating jurisdictions to submit fingerprints of arrestees to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to be reviewed for immigration violations. Quinn argued that the program was sold as a way to remove hardened criminals from the country but was instead deporting people who were not guilty of any serious crimes and sometimes not guilty of any crime at all. He told the feds that the state was quitting the program through a termination clause in the contract the state signed.
However, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency notified Quinn, along with 37 other governors, that the state does not need permission to continue the program and has eliminated all the agreements it had previously made with states. “This change will have no affect on the operation of Secure Communities in your state. ICE will continue to operate Secure Communities for jurisdictions where it is already deployed and will continue to activate the program for new jurisdictions. Of course, we will notify your office prior to the activation of any new jurisdictions for your state,” said a letter sent to governors from John Morton, director of ICE. Before Quinn froze enrollment in the program last November, 26 Illinois counties had signed on. ICE plans for national participation by 2013.
The letter went on to say that ICE has shifted the focus of its “limited resources” to those individuals who “pose a threat to public safety or who have flagrantly violated the nation’s immigrations laws.” It also says the Department of Homeland Security plans to consider changing the way the program “addresses” people arrested for minor violations, such as traffic offenses.
But Quinn said such assurances are not enough. “It is disappointing that the Department of Homeland Security has decided to push forward with Secure Communities without demonstrating real improvements to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s flawed implementation of the program,” a prepared statement from Quinn said. “Illinois was the first state to call attention to the problems with Secure Communities, and to terminate our participation in the program. Illinois remains concerned that the program can have the opposite effect of its stated purpose. Instead of making our communities safer, the program’s flawed implementation may divide communities, families and may make people less inclined to reach out to law enforcement.”
After Illinois tried to drop out of the program, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Reuters news service that she thinks states are overstepping their power on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to immigration policy. “Where immigration is concerned, the federal government fundamentally sets the policy. Just as states can’t on their own have [a strident immigration law like Arizona’s] — this is kind of the flipside of that — nor can they exclude themselves from an enforcement tool that we are using.” A federal court blocked some components of Arizonia’s law after the U.S. Justice Department sued to have them tossed out.
Immigration advocates in Illinois say ICE led states and local jurisdictions to believe that the program was voluntary and they could opt out at any time. They say the feds are trying to strong-arm state and local governments now that there are rumblings of participants quitting. “Once again [the Department of Homeland Security] is trying to rule by fiat,” Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said in a prepared statement. “This is not Libya, where security agencies make up the rules as they go along.”
For more on the program and other state and federal conflicts over immigration policy, see the State of the State column in June 2011 Illinois Issues.