Deportation and the Secure Communities Fingerprint Program

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 What is the Secure Communities Fingerprint Program?

The Secure Communities Program is a program instituted by the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency (ICE) in 2007. The program is intended to reduce the number of aliens who have been convicted of crimes in any given area. It does this by enabling local police to run a fingerprint scan on anyone arrested who is suspected of being in the country illegally.

When a person is arrested and detained, the police run a fingerprint scan on the suspect, which links to an immigration database. The database will provide information such as the person’s citizenship, whether they have ever been in contact with ICE officials, and whether they have a criminal record. If the person has a criminal record and is found in the country illegally, they become a candidate for immediate deportation.

Police officers can receive deportation and removal measures training through the Secure Communities Program. When necessary, they are authorized to arrange for the deportation of the individual.

What Is the History of the Program?

Under the George W. Bush administration, ICE recruited 14 jurisdictions to pilot Secure Communities in 2008. Harris County Sheriff’s Office (Texas) was the first program partner.

By March 2011, the program had been expanded to more than 1,210 jurisdictions under President Barack Obama. ICE aims to have all 3,141 jurisdictions (state, county, and local jails and prisons) participate by 2013.

From Secure Communities’ activation to March 2011, 140,396 convicted criminal aliens were booked into ICE custody, leading to 72,445 deportations. Every year, law enforcement officers arrest approximately one million noncitizens accused of crimes.

Biometric Database

To build deportation capacity, Secure Communities relied on partnerships and biometrics.

The state or local authorities run fingerprints against federal immigration and criminal databases for every person arrested and booked. IDENT is a Department of Homeland Security database which keeps biometric records of immigration applicants, certain criminals, and terrorists. IAFIS is an FBI database that maintains biometric criminal records.

Fingerprints of the county and state arrestees are normally submitted only to the FBI. However, under Secure Communities, they were also submitted to ICE. ICE is notified if an individual’s fingerprints match those of a non-U.S. citizen (including legal residents) by an automated process. The case is then evaluated based on immigration status and criminal history.


ICE could place a “detainer” on the individual if there were a match. This request is for the jail to hold that person for up to 48 hours after their scheduled release date so that ICE can take custody and initiate deportation proceedings. Immigrants convicted of specific crimes are subject to deportation.

Undocumented immigrants can be deported even if they have not committed a crime. ICE officials told the New York Times that, due to flaws in the database system, 5,880 individuals identified through Secure Communities turned out to be US citizens in 2009. In New Mexico, the Sentencing Commission is preparing to survey the costs of holding prisoners under ICE detainers.

What Are the Different Offense Levels?

ICE classified immigrant prisoners according to their risk levels during the program:

  • Level 1: Criminals with serious convictions such as homicide, kidnapping, robbery, and significant drug offenses involving sentences over one year.
  • Level 2: All other felonies; and
  • Level 3: Misdemeanors and lesser crimes.

According to immigrant activist groups, most of the unauthorized immigrants deported by ICE had not committed serious crimes.

Some believe the number of non-criminal detainees is overstated for political reasons.

What Are the Costs and Impacts?

The program’s implementation was criticized for not sticking to its original goals of deporting serious criminals but instead being used for general deportation facilitation. As the Obama administration became increasingly aware of the impact of its deportation policy on its presidential election prospects, it moved toward mollifying some aspects of Secure Communities enforcement.

A 2011 study conducted by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley School of Law highlighted these findings:

  • Among the Secure Communities arrestees, only 52% had a scheduled court date.
  • Approximately 88,000 American families had a member arrested under the Secure Communities program.
  • Only 24% of Secure Communities arrestees who had an immigration hearing had an attorney.
  • Through the program, ICE arrested approximately 3,600 United States citizens.

The program’s costs were unclear. In 2008, the Houston Chronicle reported that “costs range between $930 million and $1 billion,” according to ICE officials. Congress allocated $200 million for the program in 2008 and $150 million for the fiscal year 2009.

According to two 2014 studies, the Secure Communities program had no significant impact on crime rates. Undocumented immigrants living in Secure Communities saw a 14.7% increase in mental health distress and a serious reduction in their perceived health status, according to a 2018 study. The researchers attribute this to the fear and anxiety caused by the increased risk of deportation.

A 2018 study found that Secure Communities lowered Hispanic immigration’s use of federal means-tested programs, except in jurisdictions with sanctuary policies. A 2022 study discovered that the program reduced the labor supply of college-educated U.S.-born mothers with young kids by raising the cost of outsourcing household production.

Under the Secure Communities Program, Why Can a Person be Deported?

The Secure Communities Program creates three classification levels for aliens with criminal records, with Level 1 covering the most serious crimes and Levels 2 and 3 covering less serious crimes. Deporting aliens from Level 1 is a priority for the Program.

Crimes classified as level 1 are the most serious and include:

  • Felony charges and persons with records of multiple felonies
  • Violent crimes, including homicides
  • Serious drug offense charges such as trafficking or possession with intent to distribute
  • Sexual assault crimes
  • Crimes involving national security

Crimes of level 2 involve less serious offenses such as property crimes and minor drug offenses. Misdemeanors fall under level 3.

People who are classified as Level 1 are usually deported first by ICE. However, a person can also be deported for Level 2 or Level 3 offenses. A criminal record significantly increases illegal aliens’ chances of removal or deportation.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson closed the Secure Communities program with a memo dated November 20, 2014. It was replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). Critics and experts questioned the practical differences between Secure Communities and the Priority Enforcement Program, observing that little had changed except the name.

In Jimenez-Moreno v. Napolitano and Makowski v. United States, two cases cited in the PEP memos that contributed largely to the initial discontinuation of Secure Communities, the National Immigrant Justice Center litigated some of the Secure Communities program’s most blatant constitutional violations.

Restoration in 2017

As of January 25, 2017, former President Donald Trump signed executive order 13768 reinstituting Secure Communities (see section 10), which included penalties for jurisdictions that failed to comply with the program and expanding immigration enforcement priorities to include even those without serious criminal convictions.

President Joe Biden revoked EO 13768 on January 20, 2021.

Despite this, Secure Communities is primarily a data-sharing program, and the FBI and DHS continue to share biometric information of people arrested for immigration violations.

When it Comes to the Secure Communities Program, Do I Need a Lawyer?

Deportation and immigration issues are serious and require the attention of an attorney. Even if you are in the country legally, you may wish to contact an immigration attorney, especially if you have a criminal record. An immigration lawyer can help you understand citizenship laws.


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