LOS ANGELES -- The Secure Communities program must end, according to Los Angeles activists who met yesterday with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security. Under Secure Communities, also known as S-Comm, local police are required to share the fingerprints of all arrestees with federal immigration authorities. The program is in effect in all counties in the state of California and thousands of counties across the nation.
Monday’s hearing in Los Angeles, at St. Anne’s Residential Facility, was part of a series of hearings being held across the country by the Department of Homeland Security’s Task Force on Secure Communities, a group created in response to criticism of the program. The room was packed with 300 people.
The vast majority of those who testified at the hearing spoke out against S-Comm, calling the program unjust.
Only three people spoke in favor of it.
One of those was Julio Girón, a 45-year-old Guatemalan immigrant from Long Beach who said he was a member of the Minutemen and was the founder of the anti-illegal immigration group Fuerza Latina Legal.
Girón railed against undocumented immigrants and was booed by the crowd.
Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for Los Angeles Supervisor Michael Antonovich, was also booed by the crowd. Pembedjian spoke in favor of the program that requires local police to share fingerprint information of detainees with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which can potentially lead to deportation.
The forum ran from 6:00 to 8:00 pm, but about two-thirds of the audience left halfway through the meeting after calling on DHS representatives to resign.
“End the program!” they yelled as they walked out.
Among the speakers at Monday’s hearing were Mike Miron and Becca Sharp from DHS, Sister Rosemary Welsh of the Mercy Ministries of Laredo, Texas, and Arturo Venegas, Jr., a retired policeman from Sacramento.
The hearings began last month in Texas, and will continue in Boston, Chicago, and Virginia. The task force will give its formal recommendations for the program by the end of September.
“The purpose of these forums is to make sure that they listen to the community’s input, but it’s like talking to the air, because changes aren’t being made,” said Angélica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
Salas said that some activists had considered boycotting the hearings, but in the end they decided to testify against the law, even though they had little hope that DHS officials would listen.
“This is just so they keep us in mind,” said Salas.
Speakers Arturo Venegas and Rosemary Welsh said they held themselves responsible for bringing the people’s voice to the government.
“We have the opportunity to bring your voices to halls of government, voices that haven’t been heard in the past,” said Venegas to the crowd. “If we leave, we won’t be able to do that. That’s why I’m staying. It would be easy to leave, but you know what? I’m ready to fight and we are going to give the people a voice.”
Victims of the Program
One of the testimonials on the impact of S-Comm came from 20-year-old Isaura García, who has a one-year-old daughter born in the United States.
In February, García called the police to report being abused by her boyfriend. She didn’t speak English and ended up being arrested even though she was a victim of domestic violence. The Los Angeles Police Department shared her immigration information with ICE, and she is now facing deportation proceedings.
“I never would have imagined that the police would arrest me for asking for help,” said García. “When people realize what this program does, nobody will want to call the police.”
The police did not prosecute García’s partner for alleged domestic violence and weeks later he got in an accident while driving drunk that killed the other driver.
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said that García’s experience was just one of thousands of similar cases.
Secure Communities, said Hincapié, did away with LAPD’s Special Order 40, which prohibited city police from inquiring about immigration status.
“Public trust is being violated,” she said. “At first, the federal government said that Secure Communities wasn’t obligatory, but last week they said that it is. Obama is spending our money on holding these forums, when he already knows our only recommendation: End Secure Communities.”
Public Trust at Risk
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called on the federal government to end S-Comm on that grounds that it threatens public safety, infringes on civil liberties and results in the deportation of immigrants for minor offenses.
Although the program claims to prioritize dangerous criminals, in practice it indiscriminately provides immigrants’ information to ICE, including those of crime victims, according to the ACLU of Southern California.
The organization’s director, Héctor Villagra, said that the program is deeply flawed and must end.
“The program destroys the long tradition of trust between local police and the immigrant community,” said Villagra.
He added that the federal government has no right to insist that states and cities accept a program that undermines public safety, promotes racial discrimination, and costs a lot of money.
States including New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts formally rejected S-Comm, announcing that they would not sign agreements with ICE. On Aug. 5, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the program was mandatory for all states, including those that had not signed agreements with ICE.
Prior to this announcement, Los Angeles police operated under Special Order 40, a 1979 municipal order that prohibited police from sharing detainees’ immigration information with ICE on the grounds that immigrants would be more likely to report crimes and cooperate with authorities.
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