Congressmen furious as DHS delays partnership with tough-on-immigration Alabama

Michael Volpe | Contributor

Members of Congress are openly criticizing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after tough questions from Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers revealed that she halted a tough deportation program involving his state and her Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Testifying on Feb. 15 before the House Homeland Security Committee, Napolitano said pending federal litigation over Alabama’s tough anti-illegal-immigration law forced her to freeze ICE’s cooperation.

Responding to a question from Rogers, Napolitano explained that “one reason is that, as you know, the Alabama state law is in litigation. It’s at the 11th Circuit. The schedule for oral argument is coming right up.”

“We left the program in place where it was turned on, and where it’s turned on covers 75 percent of the foreign-born population in Alabama,” Napolitano told Rogers. “But given the pendency of the litigation we decided to just hold off on the remaining quarter.”

The federal government and a coalition of activist groups sued Alabama in 2011 to invalidate its immigration law, seen as one of the most unforgiving in America. On March 8, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked two provisions of that law, but said it would not decide the larger case until the Supreme Court had ruled on a similar challenge to new immigrations laws in Arizona.

Napolitano also said ICE would stop implementing the program, known as “Secure Communities,” in additional Alabama counties as long as the pending federal lawsuit reflects unanswered constitutional questions. Currently 37 of Alabama’s 67 counties are enrolled in the program and cooperate with ICE.

Secure Communities is already implemented in every county in South Carolina and Arizona, states with similar immigration laws. The program is a data-sharing initiative intended to give ICE instant access to biometric data of municipal inmates when they are booked into jails, for the purpose of identifying known illegal immigrants. (RELATED: More on illegal immigration)

“I was not satisfied with Secretary Napolitano’s response to my questioning and would love to know why the administration has put the brakes on the Secure Communities program when it originally touted it as a way to crack down on illegal immigration,” Rogers told The Daily Caller.

Committee chairman Rep. Peter King also wasn’t satisfied.

“I am supportive of both the 287(g) and the Secure Communities programs,” the New York Republican told TheDC, referring to the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act which permit the federal government to enforce immigration laws in partnership with state and local governments.

“If, as Secretary Napolitano asserts, Secure Communities is more cost-effective than 287(g), then DHS should roll the program out everywhere, and as quickly as possible.  Delaying the program in states that have passed immigration laws that are the subject of litigation is unacceptable.”

While Secure Communities was started during the Bush administration, it has seen its greatest growth under President Obama. Secure Communities is currently implemented in about 75 percent of all U.S. counties.  Since 2008 it has led to the apprehension and deportation of 124,921 criminal aliens, according to the most recent ICE data.

While Homeland Security has been delaying the implementation of Secure Communities in Alabama, ICE has been complaining in recent months about a lack of cooperation from some localities — including Cook County, Ill. and Santa Clara County, Calif.

In those jurisdictions, local law enforcement agencies have completely stopped or significantly cut back cooperation with ICE “detainers” — formal requests from the federal government for municipalities or states to hold inmates it wants to apprehend for its own immigration cases.

Center for Immigration Studies policy analyst Jessica Vaughan told TheDC that Homeland Security is playing politics with immigration policy.

“This proves that DHS is a political department,” she said. “There is blatant hypocrisy here.”

Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh seemed to agree, telling TheDC in an email that “[t]he American people deserve an explanation from Secretary Napolitano on why her Department has halted expansion of the Secure Communities program in states like Alabama.”

“States are asking and demanding for this federal partnership and should not be penalized for it,” Walsh insisted.

In Alabama, where Secure Communities is not fully implemented, the program has led to the deportation of just 156 individuals. In Arizona, where it is operational everywhere, the number so far is 14,707.

Vaughan told TheDC that ICE does not have a significant presence in Alabama, and runs its operations in that state from neighboring Louisiana — making cooperation with local authorities even more critical.

Walsh added that limited application of the Secure Communities program — whether for practical or political reasons — results in criminal aliens making bail instead of being transferred to federal custody where immigration proceedings can begin.

“There are far too many instances of individuals being let go on bail, and who are never heard from again — and are never tried for the crimes they committed,” he said.

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