Reducing Massachusetts Crime: DHS Secure Communities Program Is A Good Idea, But Needs Adjustment

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS,) in its understandable efforts to rid our cities and communities of immigrants who have committed violent crimes, has developed an interactive cross-referencing program with local police and law enforcement departments, known as the Secure Communities Program. The program is administered and enforced by a division of DHS, which is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.) This collaborative effort with local police departments requires that fingerprints obtained from arrests made by local police be automatically cross-referenced with federal immigration databases at ICE. The objective is to identify immigrants with serious and violent criminal records, and use that criminal record as the basis for deporting that person. (While deportation of an immigrant following conviction of a crime is not always done, federal immigration laws do allow for deportation if an immigrant has been convicted of a crime. The Secure Communities Program builds upon that legal foundation.)

On the surface, this approach sounds like common sense. I believe we should deport immigrants who have come here promising to obey our laws, only to commit violent crimes and infect our communities with fear and all the related consequences that violent crime brings to communities. Except that as with so many government programs, good intentions and common sense often get lost in the process of bureaucratic program enforcement. Exhibit A is ICE’s Secure Communities Program: Under the present program structure, an immigrant who is arrested and has a record of any criminal convictions at all – minor or major, nonviolent or violent – is subject to immediate deportation by DHS. Translation: If an immigrant were arrested for a traffic violation, and a fingerprint check showed that he or she was previously convicted of passing a bad check, that person would be deported. This enforcement scheme contradicts and confuses the laudable objective of the Secure Communities program, which is to rid our communities of immigrants who have been convicted of violent crimes.

For this reason, a considerable number of cities and towns across the U.S. and in Massachusetts have had second thoughts about participating in the Secure Communities Program. The City of Boston has been one of those municipalities. The original idea of the DHS/ICE program is a good one, and despite calls for the program’s dismantling, the original goal should not be abandoned. Instead, the program should be re-written to develop specific legal criteria, listing precisely what types of prior offenses constitute a “violent crime.” By no means do I suggest that the list be unnecessarily short, or that the list comprise only extremely violent crimes – only that hearings be held and a consensus reached as to what crimes are to be defined within the Program as meeting the definition of “violent” crimes, and hence subjecting the person arrested to deportation by DHS & ICE. Such a list of crimes, obviously, would include Massachusetts rape, Massachusetts sexual assault, Massachusetts kidnapping, Massachusetts assault and battery and, Massachusetts gun and firearms violations and of course, Massachusetts attempted murder and murder. Further, the final list would of necessity include more violent offenses than listed immediately above.

But the point is to spare immigrants who have a prior criminal record, but not for any violent crimes, unnecessary deportation. As a Boston/Dedham Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer who has seen a lot of violent crime, I think that narrowing the list of deportable offenses under the Secure Communities Program to violent crimes only, will achieve the Program’s sensible objectives, will make us all safer in the process, and will still treat nonviolent immigrants in a rational manner.