By Catalina Jaramillo, Feet in Two Worlds
NEW YORK - Immigrant advocates are increasingly worried about New York's participation in the controversial fingerprint-sharing program Secure Communities.
Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition said that 79 percent of the people placed in detention facilities or deported under Secure Communities were convicted of minor crimes or had no charges filed against them at all.
"We are fine with violent criminals being deported," said Hong. "That is not the problem. This program is supposed to do that." But she said that's not what's happening. "The vast majority of people who are caught in this program are innocent, have no criminal background, or have minor violations where people do not deserve to get deported."
The New York State Division of Criminal Justices Services and Governor David Paterson assert that New York has a special agreement with the Department of Homeland Security regarding Secure Communities.
In an interview with Telemundo47, Governor Paterson said that local jurisdictions within the state can choose whether or not to participate in the program, which would automatically transfer the fingerprints of anyone arrested by local law enforcement to a Department of Homeland Security database to check the person's immigration status.
"This program that the Federal Government asked us to be a part of, in which municipalities have a choice of whether or not they can opt in or not — which is what New York State was able to receive as opposed to other states — guarantees that this is only high level security threats whose information will be transferred."
Listen to Governor Paterson
Yet, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said on October 6 that the program was not optional.
On the other hand, John M. Caher, director of public information for the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), told El Diario that there was "a pledge made to this state by the Department of Homeland Security" that no community in New York will be forced to activate Secure Communities. However, Caher said this is not discussed in the Memorandum of Agreement between New York and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That document was signed by the Acting Commissioner of DCJS Sean Byrne.
Asked about other jurisdictions such as San Francisco and Santa Clara, California and Arlington, Virginia, who are trying to opt out unsuccessfully, Caher said he was not aware if those states received such a condition, so he was not sure if their experiences were relevant.
Ángela Fernández, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights and a strong critic of Secure Communities, said she hasn't been able to confirm that New York State has a special deal with DHS.
"We said, can you show us another contract that says that New York is going to get special treatment on this issue, and they haven't been able to produce it," said Fernandez. "They say there's an email from the Department of Homeland Security that says that local jurisdictions can opt out. But we don't feel confident with that."
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo talked about Secure Communities while introducing the urban agenda for his gubernatorial campaign on Thursday.
Listen to Attorney General Cuomo
"The federal government is going to put out guidance on Secure Communities, and how they believe the states have to follow the law, obviously federal law would be the law and the state would ultimately follow the federal law. I think they have to be very careful in Secure Communities, because you don't want to create a situation where people are afraid to report a crime, or afraid to testify, it could actually interfere with law enforcement and with public safety, so I think the federal government should tread very carefully."
Asked if there was a real possibility for local jurisdictions in New York to opt out of the program after Napolitano's statement, Cuomo said "well that's what we have to review."
A statement sent to El Diario by Brian Hale, director of public affairs for ICE, established that if a county doesn't want to activate Secure Communities they must 'formally notify' the state and ICE. Hale declined to elaborate further or explain exactly what that means. Hale added:
"Secure Communities agreements are generally reached at the state level and activated locally on a set schedule. ICE seeks to work with local law enforcement agencies to address any concerns and determine next appropriate steps. If a jurisdiction does not wish to activate on its scheduled date in the Secure Communities deployment plan, it must formally notify both its state identification bureau and ICE."
Because of what advocates call 'total confusion' over whether it's possible for local jurisdictions to opt-out, they are asking Governor Paterson to rescind the Memorandum of Agreement. It states that either party — the state or ICE — can terminate the agreement at any time on 30 days notice.
Comparing it to the stop-and-frisk database he limited the use of this summer, Paterson also told Telemundo47 reporter Luis Medina that advocates have to prove that Secure Communities affects low level offenders before he makes a decision.
"I think there's some confusion here. These organizations have to come forward and show us definitively that they have proof that the information was sent to INS (sic) on low level offenders, which is not what the intent of the memorandum of understanding is. If they can establish it, I will be happy to reconsider," said Paterson.
Advocates say they are gathering evidence to send to the governor as soon as possible, but some say the facts have already been demonstrated.
"That's ridiculous," said Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition. "There's the New York Times editorial and there are cases. All he has to do is look at the cases that were submitted to the pardon panel. This is something that's proven. So the ball is in his court, he needs to just make the decision."
Monika Fabian contributed to this report.
Feet in Two Worlds coverage of the New York election season is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.