Liberal groups including the American Civil Liberties Union are crying foul at what they say is the Obama administration’s political gamesmanship over the deportation of illegal immigrants.
While the U.S. Department of Justice has aggressively prosecuted Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for a series of purported civil rights violations, the Department of Homeland Security has simultaneously leaned on Arpaio to help rack up record deportation numbers.
President Obama has made the Arizona sheriff the face of what he sees as out-of-control, anti-American, and racial-profiling tactics used to enforce tough new state-level immigration laws. His Department of Justice engaged in a well-publicized legal battle that ended with the removal of Arpaio’s power to round up suspected illegal immigrants on his county’s streets.
Less well-known is the Obama administration’s cozy relationship with Arpaio — so cozy, in fact, that some liberal groups are beginning to question Obama’s commitment to civil rights.
While generally standing in the way of conservatives’ efforts to seal America’s southern border, the Obama administration has quietly deported people from America in record numbers.
The biggest year for deportations under former President George W Bush was 2008. That year, the United States deported 359,795 illegal immigrants.
Obama’s 2009 total, by contrast, was 395,165 — a nearly 10 percent increase in just his presidency’s first year. In 2010 that number dipped, but only slightly, to 387,242.
Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez , an Obama ally, used the increase to call for comprehensive immigration reform. “Nobody can say with a straight face that President Obama is not enforcing our immigration laws vigorously, but that is still the main talking point of the right wing every day of the week and twice on Sunday’s talk shows.
“The fact that we are deporting so many people, even when illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle, is a symptom of our decades-long neglect in fixing the immigration system and the chaos that has resulted from this neglect.”
The key to Obama’s deportation policies has been the Secure Communities program. This initiative directs local police forces to send fingerprints to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security — after every arrest — to check them against databases that track immigration violations.
In a 2009 report on Secure Communities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton made the program seem innocuous and administrative.
“By enhancing the exchange of information among law enforcement agencies and others,” Morton wrote, “the Secure Communities program advances the ICE mission to enforce immigration and customs laws, protect federal buildings and other key assets, and provide law enforcement support in times of national emergency.”
First started in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration, the initiative has grown significantly under Obama, whose appointees have expanded it to include more than 1,500 separate jurisdictions. Nationwide implantation is anticipated by 2013.
ICE has already attracted criticism from some corners for applying Secure Communities aggressively enough to generate those record-high deportation numbers. Some of the criticism is coming from the same activists who complained when Arpaio increased the program’s scope to deport nonviolent offenders, including some with no criminal record.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights issued a comprehensive study of Secure Communities in October.
“Overall,” they wrote, “the findings point to a system in which individuals are pushed through quickly without appropriate checks or opportunities to challenge their detention and/or deportation. … [T]he findings also reveal that people are being apprehended who should never have been placed in immigration custody and that certain groups are over represented in our sample population.”
The study determined that Latinos accounted for 93 percent of arrests pursued through Secure Communities.
Small wonder, then, that ICE relies on Maricopa County for a large segment of the detainees it eventually deports.
“We have a working relationship with ICE,” Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Christopher Hegstrom confirmed to The Daily Caller.
Hegstrom declined to be more specific, however. “As to the extent we participate in the Secure Communities Program,” he told TheDC, “I would defer you to ICE for a response.”
Lori Haley, a spokesperson for ICE in Arizona, declined TheDC’s requests for comment via email and telephone.
But statistics ICE published in May show that Maricopa County shared more than 593,000 fingerprint records with the federal government between October 2008 and April 2011.
That number represents 7.5 percent of the entire nation’s participation in Secure Communities, meaning that roughly one of every 13 referrals came from Sheriff Arpaio’s county. Only one other county — Los Angeles County, Calif. — processed more names and fingerprints through the federal government’s system.
Hegstrom also said in a statement that Arpaio’s office “has investigated over 500,000 people who have come through our jails and on the streets for immigration status through our 287g program since February 2007. This program was started long before the Secure Communities Program started in 2008.”
That “287(g) program,” which predates Secure Communities, permits ICE to delegate responsibility for immigration enforcement to a wide variety of law enforcement agencies, essentially outsourcing its authority to police at the state, county, and municipal level.
In 2009 the Department of Homeland Security restricted Arpaio’s authority under 287(g), claiming that during his immigration sweeps, the sheriff was racially profiling arrestees for referral to ICE.
But the Secure Communities program effectively restored most of that authority to Arpaio in his sprawling Arizona county.
The only meaningful difference: While 287(g) investigations were authorized both on the streets of Maricopa County and in its jails, Secure Communities restricts the investigations to inmates already jailed after their arrests.
That result has caused some Obama supporters to ask why what they see as civil rights violations are appropriate under one program but actionable under another.
In a July 28 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, Unitarian Universalist Association president Rev. Peter Morales complained that “Sheriff Arpaio, who years ago said he thinks it’s an ‘honor’ to be called KKK, and referred to his own tent city as a ‘concentration camp,’ is not only still in power, but is also empowered by the Department of Homeland Security.”
In August, ACLU policy director Joanne Lin wrote in a blog post that, “Despite the administration’s repeated statements that Secure Communities poses no civil rights concerns, they continue to turn a blind eye to racial profiling by operating Secure Communities in Maricopa Co., Arizona where the Justice Department Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation involving alleged violations of the prohibition on national origin discrimination in Title VI.”
“It’s a good thing,” added National Day Laborers Organizing Network attorney Chris Newman, that “the former governor of Arizona — the one who originally procured Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 287(g) contract in the first place — doesn’t get to rule by decree in Washington, D.C.”
Newman believes Secure Communities is part of a larger failure on Obama’s part with regard to immigration reform. “The real betrayal,” he told the Phoenix New Times in June, “is that [Obama] has failed to legalize undocumented immigrants.”
This article was updated after publication to correct the spelling of the last name of Sheriff Arpaio’s spokesperson.