NEW YORK - Three civil rights organisations are suing the U.S. government to obtain records related to a little-known programme known as "Secure Communities" that further involves local and state police in federal immigration enforcement.
The National Day Labourer Organising Network (NDLON), the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law filed the lawsuit. It came as the groups launched "Uncovering the Truth", a weeklong national campaign of coordinated actions in more than 10 cities to end police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"The passage of S.B. 1070 in Arizona should be proof enough of the dangerous and disastrous nature of ICE-police collaboration programmes like the so-called Secure Communities programme," said Pablo Alvarado, NDLON executive director, referring to the new law in that state.
"The president should heed his own advice and act responsibly by reclaiming the federal government's exclusive authority over the nation's immigration laws," he said.
"At a time when police and ICE partnerships have clearly failed, ICE is moving swiftly to implement the Secure Communities programme in every U.S. jail by 2013," said CCR attorney Sunita Patel. "Contrary to its name, this latest ICE programme makes the public less safe. There is no doubt that the programme has and will continue to deepen fear and mistrust of the police in our communities."
Relatively little is known about the Secure Communities programme. Critics say it requires local and state police to run individuals' fingerprints through multiple databases upon arrest, even if no charges are brought and regardless of how minor the charges are.
Advocates and attorneys say that, in addition to concerns presented by relying on potentially inaccurate and erroneous information in those databases, the programme functions as little more than a racial profiling dragnet to funnel even more people into the overburdened and mismanaged ICE detention and removal system.
Secure Communities is currently operating in 168 jurisdictions in 20 states with more agreements anticipated in the next few days.
"This is a massive, invasive and untested federal immigration enforcement programme that ICE has been deceptive and secretive about from the start," said Bridget Kessler, clinical teaching fellow at the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. "Without more information, we cannot allow for the spread of this dangerous ICE programme."
The plaintiffs seek the materials necessary to provide the public with comprehensive information on the Secure Communities programme, including policies, procedures and objectives; fiscal impact; data and statistical information; individual records; communications; and assessment records.
They filed a Freedom of Information Act request in February seeking these materials. Despite ICE's rapid expansion of the programme, government agencies have not yet released the requested records.
In a related development, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that the Justice Department will review the recently passed Arizona anti-immigrant law to determine its constitutionality.
She said she was unsure of the law's legality, but suggested that it might be made acceptable if a federal law enforcement officer was always present when local police were arresting someone for immigration violations. The problem with that solution, she added, is that there are not enough federal officers.
Napolitano said that ICE has deep concerns with the law's effects and that such broad immigration enforcement may siphon resources away from ICE's priority of focusing on the most serious criminals.
President Barack Obama has characterised the new law as "misguided" and threatening to "undermine basic notions of fairness".
Under criticism by civil liberties advocates, Napolitano defended her department's 287(g) programme, which authorises local law police and sheriff's departments to enforce federal immigration laws.
"The 287(g) programme can be useful," she asserted, in "focusing on serious crimes." Her remarks drew enthusiastic support from the senior Republican on the committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative from Alabama.
Sessions said (287(g) "represents a great opportunity to send a message to would-be immigrants that the door is no longer open. If you enter this country illegally, you won't get a job. Instead you'll get deported."
The 287(g) programme has been heavily criticised by civil rights groups and, recently, by the Homeland Security department's own Inspector General. Those who oppose the programme say that local law enforcement officials are not properly trained to interpret complex immigration laws.
They also contend that the programme has failed to focus on serious crimes, citing the large number of immigrants in detention for minor infractions. Many law enforcement organisations have also agreed with the contention that 287(g) siphons off scarce resources away from protecting local communities.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was previously a major advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, defended Arizona's action. He told the committee that his state was "frustrated waiting for the federal government to do something to secure our borders".
Another committee member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, told the committee that "in the current environment, comprehensive immigration reform could not pass the Congress".
Meanwhile, the act recently signed into law by the governor of Arizona continued to draw the ire of lawmakers and civil libertarians across the country.
In Washington, members of Congress will host a press conference at the U.S. Capitol to denounce what they call "the harshest immigration enforcement state law in the country". Many say the Arizona immigration law creates a "moral and political imperative for the federal government to act swiftly on comprehensive immigration reform".
Rinku Sen, executive director of the Applied Research Centre, a not-for-profit advocacy group, says the new law "exchanges the security of Arizona's communities of colour to buy false comfort for a state on the brink of economic collapse. What about the right of communities of colour to live without fear of random detention or their ability to report crimes without reprisal?"