Immigrant Dragnet: Feds bring controversial program to NYC Area

Renee Feltz Jul 24, 2012

The controversial immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities quietly went into effect in New York City this May after a similar low-key start in New Jersey. Amy Gottlieb of the American Friends Service Committee in Newark says she got the news in a phone call from Univision. “They said, ‘Amy did you know its going into effect tomorrow?’ I had no idea!”

The expansion followed earlier refusals by Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York to join the program, which shares fingerprints gathered by local law enforcement with federal agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agency calls Secure Communities its “single most valuable tool” in finding and deporting dangerous criminals. But when Cuomo attempted to withdraw from the program last June, he argued it had failed to meet its stated goal of targeting such felons as most undocumented immigrants who are detained and deported under Secure Communities have a minor criminal record or none at all.

In fact, since Secure Communities’ February 22, 2012 start date in New Jersey, ICE data shows the program found matches for 2,669 immigrants eligible for deportation. This has led to the deportation of 111 people. Just 19 of them had been convicted of “Level 1” offenses like murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children.

Meanwhile in New York state, at least 994 immigrants out of 13,901 identified have been deported since Secure Communities went into effect in a handful of counties in early 2011 and then grew to include New York City and the rest of the state on May 15, 2012. Since then ICE found at least 2,100 matches in New York City, but its data is incomplete on whether any of those individuals were “removed and returned.”

Aggressive Policing

Advocates working in the city’s five boroughs say anecdotal evidence already shows ICE is asking officers at NYPD’s local precincts to place “detainers” on immigrants they arrest. Public defenders report seeing people arrive for arraignment in criminal courts with “ICE holds” placed on them before they see a judge. They say detainers can affect whether a judge decides to grant bail or send a person to pre-trial diversionary programs such as drug treatment.

Even NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has said of Secure Communities, “We prefer that they not do that here.” Advocates say the program prompts fear among immigrants who would otherwise approach police for help or to report a crime, since they too could find themselves fingerprinted in the process and brought to ICE’s attention. The impact is even greater in communities where the NYPD is already widely distrusted.

In the heavily immigrant borough of Queens, residents have long been subject to arrest by overzealous police officers for failing to have proper identification. Now, they report increased surveillance via mobile police precincts set up at night in Jackson Heights and Corona. Advocates say police have also stepped up their patrols in parks near Elmhurst Hospital where day laborers often sleep overnight to avoid paying for housing so they can save money to send home to their families.

Community impact

New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a Jackson Heights-based immigrant support group that works with newly arrived low-wage undocumented workers, conducts role-playing trainings with its members to practice how to interact with police. Many members have consular ID cards which officers think are fake, so the group also issues its own ID cards.

“When an officer sees they have a NICE ID they’ll stop harassing that person and let them go,” says Valaria Treves, NICE’s executive director. “They’re looking for the most vulnerable individual they can find. If they see they’re tied to a community organization they move on to the next person.”

In Flushing, home to the city’s largest Asian immigrant community, Steve Choi, head of the MinKwon Center, says there has never been strong communication with police and “this extra layer of Secure Communities really complicates matters.”

A majority of Asians living in New York are foreign born, and as many as 20 percent are undocumented. Choi says when officers respond to a dispute involving an English speaker and a Korean or Mandarin speaker, they often take both sides down to the precinct to sort things out. Anyone whose fingerprints are entered into the system can be tracked by ICE.

Further out in Suffolk County, many residents are living in fear, “now that a minor traffic stop can turn into a nightmare,” says Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. As in Queens, many families are “mixed status,” with children or a spouse who is a citizen or a legal resident, while one or both parents are undocumented.

All of this comes after President Barack Obama’s announcement in June of a new federal policy to stop deporting some 800,000 young immigrants and allow them to apply for work permits. The move came amid growing criticism that during Obama’s first three years in office, Secure Communities aided the deportation of more than 1.1. million people — nearly double the rate under President George W. Bush.

“These policies seem to be in stark contrast when you look at the impact on immigrant communities,” says Jackie Esposito of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The DREAM policy is not going to have a meaningful impact if parents and other family members continue to get deported at the same time.”

Limiting ICE’s Reach

Across the country, local jurisdictions are finding their own ways to restrict Secure Communities’ reach. Earlier this month, the Washington, D.C. City Council approved a measure that only allows detainers to be placed on immigrants convicted of serious crimes. It also limits police to holding immigrants on whom a detainer is placed for 24 hours, instead of the usual 48 hours, and specifies that ICE pay the local costs of jailing the immigrant.

New York City Council’s Christine Quinn has already said that she and her colleagues would be “drafting legislation to establish parameters on the NYPD’s interaction with ICE.” It is a promise advocates are watching closely. “Even though the federal government has mandated the fingerprint sharing to occur, that is a civil request,” says Treves of NICE. “I think New York’s City Council has the power to pass legislation to mandate that NYPD will not honor detainers from ICE.”

But for now, the Secure Communities dragnet has been cast wide in the city of immigrants.


Renée Feltz was a 2010 Soros Justice Media Fellow and co-editor of She currently works as a producer at Democracy Now.

Where To Go For Help


These are some of the immigrant rights groups in the New York City area working to
stop Secure Communities, while also preparing community members for its impact.

New York Immigration Coalition
137-139 W. 25th St., 12th Fl., Manhattan
(212) 627-2227 •

American Friends Service Committee (Newark)
Immigrant Rights Program
89 Market St., 6th Fl., Newark, NJ
(973) 643-1924 •

New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE)
37-41 77th St., 2nd Fl., Jackson Heights
(718) 205-8796 •

MinKwon Center
136-19 41st Ave. (Btwn Main St. & Union St.), 3rd Fl., Flushing, Queens
(718) 460-5600 •

Long Island Immigrant Alliance
143 Schleigel Blvd., Amityville, N.Y.
(631) 789-0720 •

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