Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Secure Communities and Unsecure Households



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Radhika Bhalerao, a Research Fellow at Prajnya Trust, India. Her research interests lie in the area of gender, violence and criminal justice. Radhika has recently graduated from Leiden University and is currently researching the topic of conceptualizations of violence and abuse in intimate relationships. In this post she assesses the impact of the Secure Communities Program, a crimmigration policy in the US, on the cooperation between police and undocumented immigrant women victims of domestic violence. Radhika is on Twitter @rbhalerao190.

‘When two are fighting, the third is rejoicing’, says the moral of a famous children’s fable. What happens when one of the parties fighting is more vulnerable than the other and the party rejoicing is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)? In the United States, this disconcerting reality is being produced by the Secure Communities Program (S-Comm) for undocumented immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence.  

First launched in 2008, discontinued in 2014 and relaunched in 2017, S-Comm aims ‘to improve public safety by implementing a comprehensive, integrated approach to identify and remove criminal aliens from the United States.’ The program relies on state and local police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, and employs modern data sharing techniques between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Services (DHS) databases. This allows ICE to have a technological presence in local prisons and jails, and access information on individuals held there. When a person is arrested, under S-Comm, fingerprints of the arrestee are submitted to both, criminal databases as well as immigration databases. A database ‘hit’ signifies that the arrested person matches a record indicating a potential immigration violation. ICE and local law-enforcement authorities are notified. In most such cases, ICE issues a ‘detainer’, i.e., a request to be notified before the arrestee is released. This is to give time to decide whether the individual should be transferred to federal custody for further action or be released.

Advocates of the program stress that it facilitates efficient identification of ‘criminal aliens’ and enhances public safety. On the other hand, its critics suggest that it gives rise to discriminatory policing practices and creates an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, and adversely affects cooperation between state and local law enforcement agencies and the migrant community. Scholars suggest that S-Comm is counterintuitive and makes communities less secure particularly for undocumented immigrant women victims of domestic violence. For these women, gender and immigration status together pose challenging barriers to seek help and report abuse.

Immigration status and cooperation

Improving and ensuring public safety necessitates a strong relationship of mutual trust and cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the community. Here, the role played by the community involves compliance with the law and cooperation with the police. Two models, rational choice and legitimacy, can help explain why people comply with the law and cooperate with the police. The former suggests that people cooperate with the police only when it is in their self-interest to do so, while the latter suggests that views of police’s institutional legitimacy shape cooperation. Combining these two models, in my research I examine the ways in which S-Comm hampers mutual trust and cooperation between the police and undocumented immigrant women.

First, fear of deportation compels victims not to report abuse. In 2011, a task force on S-Comm recognized that such fears existed within the immigrant community and stated that, ‘Every effort must be made to ensure that crime victims and witnesses, particularly in domestic violence cases, are protected against unwarranted immigration enforcement actions.’ However in 2017, the political and public pulse being heavily in favor of crimmigration policies, brought with it aggressive tactics of enforcement, for example presence of ICE officials in the courthouse. Under these circumstances, the cost-benefit analysis of reporting victimization may result in greater costs than benefit. Relaunching S-Comm does little to alleviate fears, but to the contrary constrains reporting of abuse, or forces victims to drop pending cases. Moreover, mistrust is compounded by the presence of other obstacles such as cultural misunderstanding and language barriers, which may hamper cooperation and compliance with the police.

Second, the conflation of criminal law and immigration law, i.e., crimmigration law and its perceived illegitimacy impedes cooperation with the police.  The data sharing procedure under S-Comm is an embodiment of crimmigration policy that projects local police officers as being the faces of the ICE. The perception that there is a link between the police and the ICE may then undermine the trust that the community has in local institutions, as seen in this study.

When local police officers are aware that a person may be processed through the ICE/DHS database following arrest, concerns about their motivations and the corresponding ability to arrest a person may raise legitimate questions about fair treatment and procedural fairness.

When there are concerns that local police officers may have the ability to arrest a person they suspect to be in violation of immigration laws and process them through the ICE databases, questions about fair treatment and procedural fairness are not misplaced.

Finally, ICE states that it prioritizes arresting and deporting dangerous criminals. However, this has not been the case. Analysis of ICE data on 2.3 million deportations (from 2008-2013) under S-Comm, shows that the majority of these deportations concerned individuals who were accused of an immigration offence or traffic violation. Moreover, DHS has categorically stated that illegal immigrants coming forward to report a crime may themselves be arrested. In relation to victims of domestic violence, when there are language barriers or confusion over what happened, police officers often make dual arrests of the victim as well as the perpetrator. This then places an undocumented immigrant at an added risk of being identified and processed through the ICE databases.

Thus, when the actual priority of the program is identifying people for deportation, even if they themselves are victims of crime, one would hardly choose to approach the police and appear on their radar as undocumented immigrants.

Crimmigration policies such as S-Comm are somewhat of an anti-thesis, in that they do very little to keep communities safe. They create an atmosphere of fear and push an already vulnerable population into spaces which cause them more harm. They adversely affect cooperation with the police when are seen as the faces of the ICE/DHS and not as agents that are primarily tasked with protecting the community. When undocumented women who are victims of domestic abuse are caught in the cross-fire, these adverse effects can effectively re-victimize them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bhalerao, R. (2017) Secure Communities and Unsecure Households. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/07/secure (Accessed [date])

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