Secure Communities Threatens Asylum Seekers
Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced changes to its controversial Secure Communities program in response to condemnation from governors, police chiefs, and immigration advocates. Critics have derided the changes as merely cosmetic revisions to practices that target racial minorities, waste taxpayer dollars, undermine police efforts to obtain cooperation from immigrant communities, and result in the deportation of thousands of nonviolent immigrants.
The program has also been slammed for ensnaring many noncriminals and preventing victims from reporting crimes out of fear of the police. Even some US citizens have been detained and questioned for their immigration status, fueling fears that Secure Communities contributes to racial profiling. Despite public outcry, the Obama administration has signaled its commitment to Secure Communities and has stated that it will enforce states’ participation over governors’ protests.
According to ICE director, John Morton, the changes to Secure Communities include providing guidance to immigration officers and lawyers to ensure that the program targets dangerous criminals, not misdemeanor offenders or traffic violators. Among the factors to be weighed, immigration officers and attorneys can consider whether an individual “is likely to be granted temporary or permanent status or other relief from removal including as an asylum seeker or victim of domestic violence, human trafficking, or other crime.”
Even with this discretion, however, asylum seekers are still at risk of being caught up in the pursuit of undocumented criminals and are particularly vulnerable to immigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities. Asylum seekers come to the US to flee persecution and torture, but their status upon arrival may be undocumented until their cases are filed and approved. Many arrive in the US traumatized from the abuses they have endured, and many are suffering from physical and psychological distress.
Due to trauma or other impediments (economic, social, or medical), asylees may not be prepared to file for “legal” status immediately upon arrival into the US. Many are not even aware that they are eligible to apply for asylum. As they navigate life in a new country, traffic violations or other noncriminal, minor infractions may result in deportation under Secure Communities.
As of April 2011, 60% of those deported under Secure Communities were either convicted of a Level 3 offense (i.e., a traffic violation) or for a noncriminal immigration offense. Given the program’s history and its track record of sweeping up all undocumented individuals (not just serious criminals), it is likely that legitimate asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrant groups will continue to be at risk for deportation.
PHR urges the Obama administration to reconsider Secure Communities and its impact on the most vulnerable immigrant populations in the US – those seeking asylum from persecution and torture in their countries of origin.