Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

How Obama's new deportation enforcement program differs from the old one

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement photo shows an individual being fingerprinted at a local jail facility under the Secure Communities program.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement photo shows an individual being fingerprinted at a local jail facility under the Secure Communities program.
Courtesy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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Immigrant advocates say the federal government hasn't provided enough details about a new law enforcement policy that promises to only deport non-U.S. citizens if they are convicted of crimes.  

The new program, referred to as PEP, stands for Priority Enforcement Program. It was announced in November as part of President Obama's executive immigration plan.

Obama has said that PEP is replacing Secure Communities, known as "S-Comm," a controversial program that allowed state and local cops to share the fingerprints of immigrants who are booked locally with immigration agents via a federal database.

When Secure Communities' was first kicked off in 2008, the goal was to find and deport criminals - but critics say it has landed many non-offenders in deportation. Over time, many local law enforcement agencies, including many in California, stopped complying with the program, and eventually Obama announced he would replace it with a better policy.

Federal officials say they're still in the process of implementing PEP. In the meantime, critics say they don't have enough details as to how it will work.

“Our concern, quite frankly, is that they have changed S-Comm in name only," said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, "And so a couple of months after the November 20 announcement, it appears that (the Department of Homeland Security) is replicating the very same mistakes."

In a recent memo, Department of Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson wrote that Secure Communities "has attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood, and is embroiled
in litigation."

The memo provided some detail as to how PEP will be different from S-Comm. For example, under PEP, federal agents can ask local police to notify them when a non-U.S. citizen in their custody is going to be released. Under the Secure Communities program, federal agents could ask local cops to hold a deportable immigrant until they arrived. 

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the new program would only focus on people with criminal convictions. An excerpt:

ICE will now only seek transfer under PEP of an individual in state or local law enforcement custody if that individual has a conviction for a criminal offense, is suspected of terrorism or espionage, or otherwise poses a danger to national security. 

But fine print is still scarce. The new program will still rely on local agencies sharing fingerprint information with federal agents, just as Secure Communities has, and advocates say this is a concern. Newman's group and others have submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government in hopes of having more details released on the program.

ICE officials said Tuesday that they are still the process of implementing it.