Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

US Immigration Enforcement at a Crossroads: What Can we Learn from the ‘Secure Communities’ Program?



Time to read

3 Minutes

Guest post by Juan Manuel Pedroza, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Stanford University. Juan is a Graduate Fellow in the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Research Fellow. This post is the second installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Deportation Threat, Realities, and Practices in the United States organised by Tanya Golash-Boza.In March 2015, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Director Sarah R. Saldaña issued a memo reiterating a commitment to community policing and public safety. The memo follows President Obama’s plans to retire a centerpiece of its enforcement apparatus: Secure Communities. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has deported over 400,000 immigrants under Secure Communities since 2008. For years, critics of Secure Communities have pointed out the program deports many people for minor offenses. In response, ICE will end Secure Communities and replace it with the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). Will PEP be different and more effectively target serious offenses than Secure Communities? In this post, I consider the potential future of US immigration enforcement through this program.

Will deportations focus mostly on serious offenses once PEP replaces Secure Communities?
Not necessarily. DHS can detain non-citizens for a wide range of offenses. Obama’s announcement doesn’t change the fact that minor offenses can trigger deportation. His plan to extend relief in certain deportation cases could slow the tide, but the formidable deportation capacity of DHS hasn’t changed, nor has the limbo affecting millions without legal status. Only federal reform could steer the course in a different direction.
How well does Secure Communities focus on serious offenses?
One out of three Secure Communities deportations stems from the most serious class of offenses (e.g., homicide, sexual assault, major drug crimes, and other offences). The rest are lower-level priorities, including 3.7% for administrative violations. To live up to its name, PEP should target serious, top priority offenses. What if DHS aims to continue a record-setting pace of deportations? It’s likely that PEP could continue fueling a large volume of deportations for arrests involving lower-level offenses.
Not all states have the same reputation when it comes to immigration. Does being a more welcoming or hostile state matter for deportations?
Absolutely. Among US citizens, we know location can affect how someone is treated by the criminal justice system. We call this phenomenon ‘justice by geography’ because the outcome can hinge on where the case is decided. Deportations are no exception. In some states, less than one in four deportations under Secure Communities are tied to top priority offenses. In an analysis of deportation measures, I found key states on the border (Arizona, California, and Texas) and the southeast (the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia) report more punitive outcomes for non-citizens under arrest than other states—even after accounting for other factors. New York, Florida, and Illinois are consistently more lenient.
Has Secure Communities gotten better at focusing on serious offenses?
Slightly, but there are no guarantees about the future. There’s initial evidence DHS can better target its resources on top priority offenses, but it takes organized action to make it happen. By the summer of 2013, Secure Communities had drawn a wave of criticism. In response, DHS officials reiterated a long-standing (but often overlooked) goal to focus on top priority offenses. What happened after the mounting pressure? Since June 2013, the proportion of Secure Communities deportations tied to top priority offenses went up, slightly, to 40% of all deportations (up from 30% in the four years prior). It’s a start, but the slow momentum can unravel―especially if (a) PEP proves to be a change in name only and (b) relief from deportation becomes limited to special cases.
Themed Week on Deportation Threat, Realities, and Practices in the United States:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Pedroza, J.M. (2015) US Immigration Enforcement at a Crossroads: What Can we Learn from the ‘Secure Communities’ Program? Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/us-immigration-enforcement-at-a-crossroads/ (Accessed [date]).

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