DHS Must Be Transparent With the Public About Its Priority Enforcement Program

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This month, immigrant rights groups served a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to uncover the truth about the discontinuation of ICE’s failed Secure Communities deportation program and the creation of the new Priority Enforcement Program (PEP-Comm), which has been criticized for having the same flaws as the previous program.
“DHS has itself acknowledged the failure of Secure Communities, but this new program continues to entangle ICE with local police, leaving us with more questions than answers,” said Jessica Karp Bansal, litigation director at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “At a bare minimum, DHS is obligated by law to be transparent with the public about what PEP means for immigrants and their families.”

President Obama announced last year that he was ending Secure Communities, the controversial program of cooperation between ICE and state and local police that claimed to focus on serious criminals but actually ended up deporting many people who had no criminal record. But the program that replaced it is very similar. In fact, many of the flaws that made Secure Communities so problematic are deeply embedded in the new program.

Here is how Secure Communities worked. It grabbed the fingerprints of every person arrested by police or sheriffs for any reason, without due process, and ran them against immigration databases. Then, whenever ICE had even the slightest suspicion to believe they could deport someone, they would send a “hold” request to the local jail, asking that the person be held for extra time, at local expense, until ICE could pick the person up for deportation. That alone led to hundreds of thousands of deportations over the last several years
PEP-Comm keeps the first step of this process exactly the same. ICE will still immediately get fingerprints of every human being arrested in the United States, even when the person was arrested without reason or the arrest had nothing to do with an immigration issue.
However, according to what’s on paper, what happens next should be different.
ICE issued a stream of memos claiming to “improve” Secure Communities and strengthen its “priorities,” focusing on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members and illegal entrants apprehended at the border. A second-tier priority would be on those convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors and those who are not apprehended at the border, but who entered or reentered the U.S. unlawfully after January 1, 2014. The third priority would be for those who are non-criminals but who have failed to abide by a final order of removal issued on or after January 1, 2014.

But even after the memo was issued, a string of absurd apprehensions made national news, like the near-deportation of California mom Ruth Montaño, over her barking dogs, less than two weeks after the new memo.
But under PEP-Comm, instead of unconstitutional holds, ICE mostly asks local police and sheriffs to notify them when people who meet a (somewhat more limited, at least on paper) list of priorities are about to be released.

The FOIA request for basic information about the PEP-Comm deportation program comes at a uniquely important time. Administrative relief offering work authorization for millions of immigrants remains temporarily postponed by a federal district court judge, and even if it was fully in effect, Obama’s executive action actually left millions of the most vulnerable immigrants (working men and women that do not have U.S. born children and migrated to the United States as adults) even more exposed.

Congress has now fully funded DHS to enforce the current unreformed and broken immigration system. Against this backdrop, a call for transparency and accountability over ICE’s continued efforts to shift the responsibility of the federal government to local police is crucial.

For let us not forget, President Obama will have deported more undocumented immigrants by the end of his second term than any other president in U.S. history, and the PEP-Comm deportation program is sure to keep him on track if it goes unchecked.

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