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S-Comm’s Unintended Side Effects

Christy Carnegie Fujio, JD, MA, and Juliana Morris on August 18, 2011

On February 6th, 2011, 20-year-old Isaura Garcia called 911 from her apartment in Hollywood, California. She was being beaten again by her boyfriend and thought that this time he might kill her. When the police arrived on the scene, Isaura tried to explain, with her limited English, what had happened, but the police didn’t believe her story and ended up arresting her for domestic violence. She was brought in for booking and, in accordance with the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program, her fingerprints were crosschecked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) central database. The system revealed that she was an undocumented immigrant, and Isaura was immediately put in deportation proceedings.

Stories like Isaura’s highlight some of the major problems with S-Comm. Even though the explicit goal of S-Comm is to improve public safety by increasing deportations of undocumented criminals, in practice the program catches many non-criminals in its net and can actually decrease public safety by eroding trust between immigrants and local police. Mistrust between police and immigrant communities can lead to underreporting of crimes, leaving these communities vulnerable to violence and impairing officers’ ability to investigate and solve crimes. In fact, Isaura admits that, if she had known about S-Comm, she would have avoided calling 911. As she puts it, “I never would have called had I known I could face deportation.”

Another consequence of S-Comm is its impact on the mental and physical health of immigrants. It has increased fear of deportation in many communities, not only among undocumented immigrants, but also among their US citizen children and networks of families and friends. This pervasive fear leads to social isolation and health care avoidance. Healthcare avoidance and social isolation can limit patients’ ability to prevent the onset of diseases; avoid costly, catastrophic health problems; manage chronic disease; and minimize the spread of contagious diseases that pose public health threats (tuberculosis, flu, etc). Chronic stress and anxiety also contribute to increased cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, and decreased immune function. As Isaura puts it, “Secure Communities turned my life upside down.” The stress and strain have negative effects on the health of the entire community, including the lives of her family and her 1-year-old daughter.

Started in 2008, S-Comm is currently in effect in over 1,000 jurisdictions across the US and is poised to grow rapidly. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced its intention to expand the program nationwide, and has denied the requests of a number of states and cities to opt out of the program. In the face of this expansion, many communities and immigrant rights groups have begun to debate the legitimacy of S-Comm, sounding the call to terminate the program. Health professionals can play a critical role in this debate by learning about the issue, paying attention to the ways S-Comm affects patients and communities, and by advocating for government action to respect human rights and promote immigrant health.

Sign the petition to put a moratorium on Secure Communities.

Places: United States