Paul Nitze: Secure Communities is the correct move |

Paul Nitze: Secure Communities is the correct move

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Early last week I spent an hour or so on the “de-icing pad” at DIA watching a guy in a cherry-picker spray what looked like green bath foam on the wings of the plane. The snow was swirling thicker and thicker, but lo and behold, we took off.

As he prepares to leave office next week, Gov. Ritter has given yet another political gift to his replacement, securing his status as the unheralded de-icer of the incoming Hickenlooper administration. Ritter made the important but thankless decision to sign Colorado up as the 36th state to participate in the Secure Communities program. This is the federal program run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that seeks to identify and deport criminal aliens.

Ritter was jeered by the program’s opponents, some of whom claimed that it was an act of cowardice undertaken by a lame-duck governor slinking out the back door. Not exactly. Making this decision now saves Hickenlooper from having to alienate either immigrant-rights groups or the law enforcement community during his first couple of months on the job. It’s of a piece with other tough calls the governor made during his felicitous final year, a swan song that makes me wonder if all Colorado governors shouldn’t serve a single term.

Like every other governor in the country, Ritter has had to confront a federal immigration system that couldn’t have been dreamed up by George Orwell and Lewis Carroll if they put their heads together. “Broken” doesn’t begin to describe it. Let me throw some other adjectives at it – capricious, opaque, hypocritical, careless and cruel.

All but the hardest-core nativists among us want to fix this mess and provide a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens. In the meantime, politicians have to play the hand they’ve been dealt, and in that context signing onto Secure Communities was the right call.

Contrary to Jessie Ulibarri, public policy director of the ACLU of Colorado, it does not “incentivize racial profiling by allowing police officers to stop people they suspect of being undocumented.” Nor will it result in the deportation of great swathes of illegal aliens who have been convicted of no crime, as alleged by Bill Johnson in The Denver Post.

Secure Communities makes biometric and other data available to ICE when someone is arrested and booked into a county jail. ICE then decides whether to put a “detainer” on someone suspected of being here illegally. Once the inmate serves out any criminal sentence, he’s transferred to ICE, at which point any number of things happen – ICE could get a deportation order, the inmate could agree to voluntary removal, or the inmate could be released into the U.S. because he’s committed a low-level crime or establishes legal residence.

Before the days of local-federal coordination, a huge number of illegal aliens convicted of serious crimes was released after serving out their sentences. That was simply intolerable, and even Colorado’s top tier immigrant-rights groups agree that illegal aliens convicted of serious crimes, like high-level drug dealing, should be deported. Equally intolerable is the world envisioned by Arizona’s new immigration law, which encourages local law enforcement to target suspected illegal aliens who have committed no other crime.

Those who call Secure Communities an “Arizona-style dragnet,” like Hans Meyer at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, should brush up on their American history. The ugly truth is that racial profiling by local law enforcement agencies has little to do with the legal tools available, and everything to do with the culture of the agency. Unfortunately, racist cops and even racist departments still exist in pockets of the country, but they’re the exception. Witness the opposition of most Arizona police departments to the new law in that state. They aren’t interested in destroying community policing efforts via profiling.

As for the allegation that Secure Communities is an effort to round up non-criminal aliens, that charge misses the meatiest problem with the program, which is that it draws an arbitrary line in the sand between those who get caught in its net and those who don’t.

The problem is not that non-criminal aliens are routinely deported. It’s that someone who is convicted of drunken driving, a low-level offense, is subject to losing her job, her family, her community – basically her entire life – as a consequence of that offense. Moreover, between arrest and deportation or removal they aren’t really afforded their rights. Trial is not a viable option if you have to sit in jail for the nine months your case is pending.

Unfortunately, in the absence of comprehensive reform at the federal level, there is no alternative to drawing that line. Only 5 or 6 percent of the illegal aliens in this country have ever been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony offense. Putting that fraction of illegal aliens at the front of the line for deportation or removal not only improves community safety, it also makes it more likely that Colorado will reject the extreme anti-immigration proposals – like an end to birthright citizenship – that are coming down the pike.

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