The case for immigration enforcement

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Thursday, October 28, 2010

If you support immigration, you have to ask yourself this question: What kind of enforcement system would you want if we were starting from zero and there were no unauthorized immigrants in the country?

Would it be reasonable to deport anyone new who came and stayed illegally? If so, would it be reasonable for police to be able to fairly and easily check someone's citizenship?

What about for someone who is arrested?

I think that most Americans - like citizens in other countries - would find such enforcement actions reasonable. I do.

But they present a quandary for immigrant activists, and it can be seen at its most elemental level in their opposition to a program called Secure Communities.

Field-tested in Boston, installed first in Houston two years ago, Secure Communities requires that local, state and federal jails check the fingerprints of everyone booked - regardless of color, crime or language - against national immigration and FBI databases. More than 660 jurisdictions in 32 states now participate in the program, and the Obama administration is pressing hard to install it in all of the nation's 3,100 state and local jails by 2013.

Some communities, such as the District, Arlington and Santa Clara, Calif., have tried to opt out but are discovering that they can't. The immigration check is automatic when a community checks with state and federal fingerprint databases.

Activists and some editorialists are furious, accusing the administration of caving in to bullying immigration restrictionists and nativists. The program's priority is to find unauthorized immigrants who are criminals. But critics charge that Secure Communities leads to discriminatory profiling of all Hispanics, and Asian, African and Caribbean Americans. They also say it undermines vital police relationships in immigrant communities, impairing the ability of police to fight violent crime.

These are valid concerns. But they are not enough to stop Secure Communities. The universal check of everyone arrested forecloses profiling inside the jails, while a claimed link from the jails to police actions on the street and to community relations is tenuous.

Arizona's immigration enforcement law went too far by requiring local police to seek documentation of immigration status from anyone they have "reasonable suspicion" of being here illegally. But in polls, one reason most Americans said they supported the Arizona law is that the principle of involving local police is not wrong; many European countries do the same. At some point, we have to trust our police.

Besides, there are many other controls against discriminatory harassment and arrests, including lawsuits such as the one brought this week accusing the New Haven, Conn., police department of targeting Latinos.

What, then, is the right point for local police involvement? Leftist humanitarians and rightist libertarians say almost none at all. They marginalize themselves. But more centrist and influential pro-immigrant groups such as the National Immigration Forum, though supporting enforcement in principle, stretch their credibility by emphasizing their criticism of even Secure Communities. It's as if there is no enforcement measure they like.

But here is the quandary. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced this month that a record number of more than 390,000 unauthorized immigrants were deported in this past fiscal year, but roughly half weren't criminals. Like most of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, they were law-abiding and already part of the American fabric.

The advocacy groups - as well as the administration and most Americans, according to polls - want to legalize them. Secure Communities has been key in contributing to the deportations, as it sweeps up people arrested for traffic violations and other minor infractions.

The nativists and restrictionists have been manipulating the Obama administration and most Americans by demanding tough enforcement measures but refusing to negotiate the legalization and temporary worker program that would make a crackdown fully work and get us back to point zero.

The 1986 amnesty failed precisely because effective enforcement and a legal temporary worker program weren't established. Today's unauthorized immigrants came in under the de facto temporary worker program left in place - crossing the border illegally for whatever jobs they could get.

The administration has no choice but to enforce the law, though it can and has been showing some leniency in putting off some deportations. But the activist groups need to be out in front of the enforcement argument, not trying to block it.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group . His e-mail address is

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