U.S. Citizens Illegally Detained in L.A. As a Result of the Secure Communities Program

U.S. citizens have been illegally detained throughout Los Angeles County as a result of the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, a coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups said Wednesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others identified four U.S. citizens detained through the fingerprint-sharing program in the last few months, including three identified in November.

“Native-born American citizens are being illegally detained by the Secure Communities program right here in L.A. County,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”
The four citizens were initially detained after arrests for such minor things as shoplifting but were kept in custody for additional days because of requests made by immigration authorities. Under the Secure Communities program, which began in 2008, fingerprints collected by state and local police are shared with immigration authorities to identify and deport tens of thousands of people each year. The program was initially touted as a way to target serious convicts for deportation but has come under fire because a large percentage of immigrants caught up in the program were never convicted of a crime or are low-level offenders. There is also growing evidence that the program ensnares U.S. citizens. This a cause of concern given the program’s original intentions.

In an interview Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said cases of detained citizens are highly unusual. “We have absolutely no intention of detaining U.S. citizens,” he said. “We have no authority to do so and it is not our policy.” The agency will soon issue a revised form for people on immigration holds before they are transferred to ICE custody, he said. The form will provide detainees with phone numbers to call to raise concerns about a hold and will make it clear that such holds are only valid for 48 hours, he said. However, aside from issuing a revised form, there was no mention of any compensation for those who were unlawfully detained.

Concerns about Secure Communities led Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa earlier this month to write to Gov. Jerry Brown asking him to suspend the state’s participation. “Individuals who pose no discernible threat to public safety are held in our local jails at the taxpayers’ expense, with minimal to no reimbursement from ICE,” Villaraigosa wrote.

Although the exact number of U.S. citizens detained on immigration holds is not known, a study published earlier this year by researchers at UC Berkeley found that citizens made up 1.6% of Secure Communities cases analyzed. In a study published in September, a political science professor at Northwestern University identified more than 160 U.S. citizens detained or deported by immigration officials in recent years.

The ACLU and other groups called on local officials to revise policies for cooperating with immigration hold requests. Santa Clara County and Illinois’ Cook County have implemented policies limiting local cooperation with immigration holds depending on a person’s criminal history.

It comes as no surprise that the Secure Communities program would have this affect on U.S. citizens. Because of the nature of local law enforcement, the UC Berkeley study only confirms what many feared would be a problem when the program was first instituted. However, with no recourse or remedy for this harm done to U.S. citizens, changes must be addressed by our legislatures to bring about the changes necessary so that fewer to no illegal detentions will happen with the program.