Opinion Columns & Blogs

Secure Communities costs taxpayers, hurts families

It’s been almost one year since our neighbors in King County came together and stood up for their immigrant community members by passing the King County Detainer Ordinance last December.

King County’s ordinance, the first of its kind in Washington, is part of the growing resistance throughout the country to a program called Secure Communities.

The federally mandated program claims to focus on criminal immigrants, defined by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as “immigrants who have been convicted of a crime by a court of law,” and automatically runs the fingerprints of anyone in police custody to check whether they have been flagged by the immigration system.

This may sound fairly harmless, but Secure Communities has been shown to deviate from its stated mission of nabbing criminals.

According to the University of Washington and several national studies, Secure Communities is causing much more harm than good.

Locally, it has increased jail time 161 percent (an extra 29.2 days per person), cost taxpayers a whopping $3 million a year, unfairly targeted Latino residents and wound up deporting mostly noncriminal immigrants.

Nationally, ICE’s own data on the first two years of the program show that 79 percent of those deported were either deemed noncriminal or not charged or convicted of a crime. Additionally, the accidental detention of 3,600 U.S. citizens was also reported.

This program encourages an environment ripe for racial profiling, dismantles families and creates a surge of distrust among community members towards law enforcement. King County’s ordinance holds Secure Communities to the Department of Homeland Security’s originally stated goal — criminals — by limiting ICE holds to only those convicted of a serious or violent felony.

I was firsthand witness to a voraciously indiscriminate deportation law like Secure Communities, not as a detained immigrant but as an immigration detention officer in Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center, the fourth largest immigration detention center in the nation.

I saw good people torn away from their children and spouses to be sent to a country they often knew little about, some as a result of minor violations, like driving without a license or without valid insurance, or often with no criminal charge at all.

Secure Communities may claim to target criminals, yet anyone whom police decide to fingerprint, with or without charges, is at risk of being detained and subsequently deported.

It has been almost a year since the King County ordinance passed, and Pierce County has not yet come together on this issue. The Trust Act, a statewide measure similar to King County’s ordinance, has also had little legislative luck.

I used to confine immigrants for a living, yet I have come to realize that immigrants are no more criminal than you or I — and are actually a benefit to our community.

When will Pierce County and the rest of our beautiful state come to realize this as well, if only for the savings? ICE holds are costing taxpayers millions by detaining noncriminal immigrants.

It is in everyone’s best interest for Pierce County to follow King County’s lead and resist the net of Secure Communities by setting clear guidelines for law enforcement to only detain for ICE those who committed serious or violent felonies.

Douglas Epps, a former detention officer at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, is a graduate student at the University of Washington Tacoma.