- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2011

President Obama is in El Paso Tuesday to give a speech on what he calls “the broken immigration system.” He’d know because he’s the one helping break it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Secure Communities program under which local law enforcement must turn over illegal criminals to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation. The agency estimates that local law enforcement arrests over 1 million people a year who are not U.S. citizens.

Liberal officials in both Illinois and San Francisco last week announced that they will no longer participate in the the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program, preferring instead to allow criminal illegal aliens to roam the streets. While the White House has not responded to the immigration retreat, some in Congress want action. “The Obama administration has said that states and localities cannot opt out of Secure Communities, so the  administration should make sure that all states comply with this mandatory program,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith told me Monday.

Under the program, those taken into local law enforcement custody have their fingerprints checked against a biometrics database for DHS immigration status and FBI criminal records. If there’s a match, local law enforcement must detain the individual for 48 hours beyond scheduled release in order to allow ICE to investigate whether deportation is warranted. Illegals who are given prison sentences in local jurisdictions must serve their time, then ICE will return them to their countries of origin.

Secure Communities was created by the George W. Bush administration in 2008 and grows incrementally by jurisdiction. The program is currently active in 1,200 jurisdictions and is supposed to be fully implemented at a national level by 2013. Through the program’s fingerprint matching, ICE has taken custody of over 140,000 criminal aliens arrested by local law enforcement. About half of these were deported.

Officially, DHS and ICE insist that they are strong supporters of the program. “Secure Communities is a critical part of transforming our approach to immigration enforcement by focusing our resources on those in our country illegally, who have also broken criminal laws,” said ICE Public Affairs Director Brian Hale. And while DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that local states and cities do not have the right to opt out of the program, she has not done anything to enforce the requirement that lawbreaking illegals be held until ICE can take custody.

Unofficially, the Obama administration will not force states or cities to adhere to the federal program. Illinois and San Francisco can let their criminal illegals out of jail immediately after booking, without checking their fingerprints with the DHS database, and there are no consequences from Washington.

Liberal activists and Democratic politicians hate the idea of allowing ICE to deport low-level criminals or non-criminals, even though they are in the country illegally. Mr. Obama’s sudden interest in immigration issues coincides with the uptick in his 2012 re-election campaign activity. After his speech in El Paso, he will fly to Austin for fundraisers for his campaign.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn sent a letter on May 4 to the director of Secure Communities, Marc Rapp, saying his state police “will play no role in Secure Communities, either actively or as a pass-through for information.” The Democratic chief executive complained that 30 percent of those deported had not been convicted of a crime (other than being in the country illegally). As a result, those arrested in Illinois will no longer have their fingerprints compared to FBI criminal or DHS immigration records. Illegals will also get a free pass in San Francisco, thanks to Sheriff Michael Hennessey who announced on Thursday that, beginning June 1, his police department would no longer participate.

“Criminal illegal immigrants who are booked should not be released into our streets,” said Mr. Smith. “All too often, illegal immigrants who have committed crimes go on to commit more. Those who oppose this common-sense program are putting partisan politics ahead of saving Americans lives and reducing illegal immigration.”

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called on the president to freeze the Secure Communities program immediately because of the “astonishing rate of non-criminal deportations.” Mr. Gutierrez also complained that the program “may endanger the public, particularly among communities of color” because it supposedly makes local police a source of fear to law-abiding immigrants.

The Secure Communities program works to get illegal immigrants with criminal histories off the streets of America. Instead of giving a flowery speech on the Texas border, Mr. Obama should instruct Ms. Napolitano and others in his administration to do their jobs and enforce the current program.

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.