Immigrant Advocates Hail Cuomo for Suspending Secure Communities in New York State

The purported mission of Secure Communities is to deport dangerous criminals living in the U.S. illegally. (Photo: foreverdigital/flickr)

The purported mission of Secure Communities is to deport dangerous criminals living in the U.S. illegally. (Photo: foreverdigital/flickr)

NEW YORK—Exactly two weeks after immigrant advocates demanded action from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to end the federal program Secure Communities in New York, he announced that he will freeze the state’s participation until “the numerous questions and controversies regarding the program can be resolved.”

In a letter sent to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by Cuomo’s administration yesterday, the Governor established that because the program is not meeting its stated goal—”to deport serious felons” who are not U.S. citizens—and is creating fear among immigrant communities, New York, “is best served by relying on existing tools to ensure the safety of its residents.”

“There are concerns about the implementation of the program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “As a result, New York is suspending its participation in the program.”

The Governor also said in his statement that the questions raised about the program are, “aggravated by inconsistent statements by DHS and a failure to disclose basic information about the program.”

The news was welcomed by elected officials, law enforcement agencies and immigrant advocates, many of whom have been pushing Cuomo to pull New York out of the program in which the fingerprints of people arrested by local police are shared with federal immigration authorities.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said, “I applaud Governor Cuomo for taking steps to halt this program. There have been serious concerns that the Secure Communities initiative sidetracked from its original goal of catching convicted criminals and negatively impacts New York’s immigrant families.  Governor Cuomo’s action today signals that law enforcement tools must be effective in order to ensure public safety.”

“We urge that the suspension of Secure Communities is permanent,” said Andres Garcia, from New Immigration Community Empowerment (NICE), an immigrant advocacy program in Queens.

Steven Krokoff, Chief of the Albany Police Department said, “In light of the confusion surrounding this program and the pending Inspector General’s review, the Governor’s decision to freeze this program until the federal review is complete is appropriate. The procedures we currently use will ensure the safety of neighborhoods across the state while at the same time encouraging individuals in all communities to come forward to report crimes.” The New York State Police Benevolent Association also released a statement supporting the governor’s action.

But Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, whose county is already participating in Secure Communities, said Cuomo’s decision was a “horrendous setback” for anyone interested in enforcing immigration.

“It is special interest politics taking precedence over our homeland’s security. It is unseemly for a state to tell the federal government it will fight them in their efforts to keep our nation safe,” said Levy.

Cuomo’s letter mentions that the decision was made after receiving many complaints and questions about the program. Immigrant advocates say that Secure Communities uses local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws.

But yesterday Nicole Navas, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson refuted that claim. “Secure Communities imposes no new or additional requirements on state and local law enforcement.” ICE takes action when the fingerprint check reveals that a person is undocumented. “The federal government, not the state or local law enforcement agency, determines what immigration enforcement action, if any, is appropriate. Only federal officers make immigration decisions, and they do so only after an individual is arrested for a criminal violation of state law, separate and apart from any violations of immigration law.”

It’s unclear if Cuomo’s decision will actually change operations on the ground in New York State. A Suffolk County Police spokesperson said the county “will continue to keep our Secure Communities order in effect.”

After Illinois quit the program last month U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that states and local jurisdictions cannot opt out of the program and that Secure Communities is mandatory. That is, once a jurisdiction is activated, the fingerprints they submit to the FBI to be checked against the Department of Justice’s biometric system for criminal history records are automatically sent to DHS’s biometric system to check against its immigration and law enforcement records.

The only thing that a jurisdiction may decide, according to ICE’s latest statement, is whether or not to receive alerts from ICE indicating the immigration status of someone who they have arrested. Choosing not to receive those alerts won’t effect whether the local ICE field office in that jurisdiction takes action against the migrant.

But while the significance of Cuomo’s action remains to be seen, immigrant advocates say they wanted Cuomo to assert that New York is unwilling to collaborate.

According to ICE, the program has been activated in 1,298 jurisdictions in the country (41 percent) and in 27 jurisdictions in New York State (44 percent). The agency plans is to have it fully implemented by 2013.

Catalina Jaramillo is a reporter with El Diario.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

AboutCatalina Jaramillo
Catalina Jaramillo is an independent reporter and radio producer living in Philadelphia. For most of her career, she has worked toward social justice, writing about inequality and building real and virtual spaces for people to communicate. She is a freelance correspondent for the Chilean newspaper La Tercera and Qué Pasa magazine, and has filed stories for Al Dia, WHYY, FSRN, El Universal Domingo, VICE México and more. Catalina produced The Time is Now, a Fi2W climate change workshop for immigrant and ethnic media and is part of the Unidos team. She’s also an adjunct assistant professor for the new Spanish concentration at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her @cjaramillo.