Secure Communities, Sanctuary Cities and the Role of ICE Detainers
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contends that its Secure Communities program and use of detainers are essential to its ability "to protect the safety and security of the communities it serves."
Initiated under President Bush and expanded under President Obama, Secure Communities is an ambitious surveillance program under which millions of fingerprint records submitted to the FBI by law enforcement agencies are automatically passed along to ICE to match against its records. Where a match occurs, the immigration agency then decides whether to issue a "detainer" notifying the local law enforcement officials to hold the noncitizen so that ICE can take the person into custody for deportation.
Since President Trump assumed office, Secure Communities has been promoted as essential to implement this administration's agenda for ramped up deportations. The agency contends that "Secure Communities has proven to be one of ICE's most important tools for identifying and removing criminal aliens as well as repeat immigration violators."
However, analyses of the agency's own internal records document that the use of detainers under this program is not living up to these claims. For example, according to the latest available ICE data only about 2.5 percent of Secure Communities removals were connected to the use of detainers sent to local law enforcement agencies. When compared with ICE removals from all sources, this component made up even a smaller proportion -- less than 1 percent of all ICE removals.
Unfortunately, since President Trump assumed office, information about how many detainers issued under Secure Communities actually led to removals has become a closely guarded secret. Indeed, last Friday government attorneys for ICE filed papers in federal court seeking a court order to allow it to withhold details on the current role detainers are now playing - details which had been regularly released during the Obama administration.
Latest ICE Numbers
This report is based on the latest ICE records, current through July 2017. The data was obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, following lawsuits that TRAC's co-directors filed against the agency. Included are case-by-case records on each removal under ICE's Secure Communities program since the program went operational at the end of 2008. They track accomplishments thus far during President Trump's time in office. The data also cover the entire period of the program's operation under President Obama, including when similar fingerprint matching continued under the Priority Enforcement Program.
What evidence does ICE cite on the effectiveness of its Secure Communities program? The agency's website currently claims:
"Since its reactivation on January 25, 2017 through the second quarter of Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, as a result of Executive Order No. 13768, entitled Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, more than 43,300 convicted criminal aliens have been removed as a result of Secure Communities." [Source: https://www.ice.gov/secure-communities]
TRAC was able to compare this claim against the agency's own internal records of the program's activities during this same period. In comparison to ICE's claim of 43,300 convicted criminals removed under Secure Communities from January 25, 2017 through March 2017, ICE's own records indicate that there were only 10,893 such removals - that is, ICE's public statements claim four times the level that the evidence shows actually occurred.
In addition, the 10,893 total included many individuals who had only been convicted of entering the country illegally or had been found to have committed relatively minor offenses. If these are excluded from the counts, only 4,850 of those removed under Secure Communities during this period were of individuals convicted of a serious crime.
If we look at the numbers from March 2017 through July, the data show that there has been an increase in Secure Communities removals since President Trump assumed office, but the change thus far has been quite small. Over the past 12 months (August 2016 - July 2017), monthly Secure Communities removals on individuals convicted of any crime increased from 4,894 to 5,190 - or an increase of 296 more individuals per month than under President Obama. For those convicted of a serious crime, only an additional 131 individuals were removed in July 2017.
The latest data actually indicate there has been a drop in removals during the past several months. See Table 1. The table shows that If we smooth out the ups and downs by using a running average to give credit for months with higher totals, then by July there were 529 additional Secure Communities removals that month of individuals convicted of crimes as compared with removals under President Obama. For those convicted of serious crimes, the average monthly change was just 128 more individuals.
These modest numbers are a far cry from the effectiveness that the agency has been claiming for its utilization of this program.
New Web Tool Provides Access to Secure Communities Data
The data TRAC has compiled from these internal ICE records documenting the operation of the Secure Communities program are now publicly available via a new online query tool that accompanies this report. Available are details month-by-month for all Secure Communities removals for each state and county in the country.
This new Secure Communities app is a companion to an earlier tool that tracks all ICE removals - those from Secure Communities as well as those from all other sources. ICE data on all removals are now available through June 2017.
Removals Under Secure Communities and the Role of Detainers
Most of the public debate over Secure Communities has revolved around ICE's use of detainers and the refusal by some so-called "sanctuary jurisdictions" to honor them. We therefore turn to the question: how often in Secure Communities removals does ICE actually use a detainer?
To begin with, what ICE counts as a removal under Secure Communities isn't at all synonymous with its use of detainers after a fingerprint match. Rather than counting as a Secure Communities removal just those on which a detainer or some other form of notice is used to take the individual into custody, ICE counts any removal on which a prior fingerprint match occurred. The match doesn't even need to be directly connected to the actual apprehension that led to the removal.
Nor are these counts of Secure Communities removals limited to fingerprint records submitted by local law enforcement jurisdictions. The FBI receives fingerprint records from many sources. Thus, Secure Communities removal statistics encompass a wide range of sources beyond fingerprint records submitted to the FBI from local law enforcement agencies.
Figure 1 and Table 2 provide the results of this analysis to isolate the role detainers play. Shown in Figure 1 are three trend lines. The top line tracks all ICE removals over time. The middle line tracks the subset of ICE removals that ICE classifies as Secure Communities removals. This number includes not just those convicted of criminal offenses, but also counts individuals who were deported through Secure Communities because they had entered illegally or had overstayed their visa.
The line at the bottom in Figure 1 shows the subset of Secure Communities removals in which ICE recorded that a detainer had been prepared on this individual, based upon fingerprint records submitted by local law enforcement agencies. (ICE states that although the detainer preparation date occurred before the removal took place they cannot tell whether or not it played any role in the eventual removal of the individual.)
A surprisingly small number of ICE Secure Communities removals can be seen to have involved such detainers. This has been true since the inception of the Secure Communities program. Compared to total ICE removals the Secure Communities removals are even less significant.
It is not the case that too few detainers were issued. An earlier TRAC report documents that ICE has prepared over 2 million detainers, although some of these could have been based upon something other than a fingerprint match. What is shown is how few of these detainers actually lead to an actual deportation.
Note that in Figure 1, the trend line plotting removals that result from detainers does not continue into the Trump Administration. This is because in January of 2017 ICE changed its policies and now refuses to release this information. Last Friday, on November 3rd, the Justice Department on behalf of ICE filed a motion in federal court seeking a court order to permit them to withhold the information from the public. The agency's claim wasn't based on any alleged harm in releasing this data. The government simply alleged that the law didn't require it to release this information. It argued that since this was—in its view—merely a discretionary release, ICE was free to change its mind and discontinue releasing the data.
This lack of transparency on the part of the agency is troubling.
What we can tell from the most recently released data is that only about 2.5 percent of Secure Communities removals were connected to the use of detainers based on fingerprint records submitted to the FBI by local law enforcement agencies. When compared with ICE removals from all sources, this component made up less than 1 percent of all ICE removals.
 FY 2017 runs from October 2016 through September 2017. The second quarter is defined as January - March 2017.