By Laura Lichter, AILA President-Elect

Why would anyone agree to volunteer a significant amount of time to serve on an advisory task force representing nearly two dozen wildly divergent perspectives on immigration enforcement tasked with studying, analyzing, and offering solutions to a problem that some of the best minds and most committed advocates in the country haven’t yet managed to sort out?  Was it worth trying to get to consensus on smart immigration enforcement—and could safer communities be balanced with respect for due process and civil rights?

I didn’t know if it would be successful, but I knew it was well worth the effort.

Within a very short time, it became apparent that, despite the very different views held by individual Task Force members, we had broad consensus that ICE’s Secure Communities program wasn’t doing what the agency said it was designed to do.  Indeed, far from making communities safer, Secure Communities was actually making communities less secure.  The overly-broad net the program cast was hurting community policing and raising very serious concerns about civil rights abuses. States thought they’d been played and that ICE had engaged in a bait-and-switch.  Many state and local officials—after seeing the unintended impact in their communities—just weren’t buying what ICE had to sell.  But this all had to be balanced with those same communities’ recognition that targeting serious offenders was smart enforcement of the immigration laws.

After hearing from experts in the field, it became clear that the unintended consequences of the program—destroying community trust in law enforcement and potentially inspiring racial profiling and other biased policing—were violating the public’s trust and seriously impacting local law enforcement’s ability to effectively do its job. The Task Force quickly came to understand that ICE must strengthen accountability mechanisms, including prevention of and remedies for civil rights violations.  Regardless of unresolved questions regarding the legal authority for the program, it became clear throughout our months of work that ICE had to do a much better job of working with local communities, clarifying the programs it operates, and responding to community concerns.

The Task Force found that Secure Communities didn’t just target the dangerous convicted criminals ICE said it would.  Instead, almost 60% of the people arrested and deported under the program either had no criminal history or had only been convicted of a misdemeanor.  While Secure Communities has been responsible for removing some dangerous individuals from our communities, the Task Force noted that ICE already has other programs that work with local law enforcement to identify serious convicted criminals in the United States illegally.  It also found that, as currently administered, Secure Communities lacks sufficient transparency and accountability, and demanded better monitoring of local law enforcement “outliers” for abuses.

ICE’s stated policy is to prioritize and target dangerous criminals and national security threats.  If this effort at smart enforcement of the immigration laws is to be successful, Secure Communities must be brought in line with ICE’s stated policy objectives.  At a minimum, this must include the consistent exercise of prosecutorial discretion—a critical tool in management of competing law enforcement concerns.   The Task Force said loud and clear that Secure Communities should not be a tool for going after individuals who pose no threat to our communities, people who at most are civil immigration violators or were convicted of misdemeanors.

The final report issued by the Task Force yesterday is nothing less than remarkable.  It is the product of a broad-based group of law enforcement officers, state and local officials, academics, legal experts and advocates. We all agreed that Secure Communities isn’t working, and is in need of a serious overhaul, if not suspension or outright termination.  We had broad consensus that Secure Communities casts too wide a net and squanders limited law enforcement resources on low priority cases, instead of prioritizing those who are a danger to the community or our national security. That some members felt that the program was fatally flawed and others thought it could be fixed “on the fly” doesn’t change our agreement that Secure Communities has some very serious, if not fatal, problems.

Everyone on all sides of the immigration debate agrees on one thing—the system is badly broken.  Until Congress finds the political will to roll up its sleeves and give the nation an immigration system that meets the needs of America’s families and business, serves as a beacon to the best and the brightest from around the world, and respects and protects due process and the rule of law, the law must be enforced in a way that secures the borders, protects our communities, and keeps hard working families together.

Today, in the wake of the release of the Task Force Report, there is the predictable second guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking.  The end product is far from perfect.  And it is certainly no substitute for meaningful reform.  That’s Congress’ job.  But as a citizen, lawyer, and AILA leader, I knew my continued involvement would insure that the cries of the clients we are so privileged to represent would be heard loud and clear in Washington, and in particular, in the inner sanctum of the Department of Homeland Security.

That’s why I stayed on. And that’s how we were heard.

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