Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suspended the state’s participation in a federal immigration program that ensnares illegal immigrants, heeding the call from a growing chorus of immigration advocates and state and city lawmakers who oppose it.
Called Secure Communities, the program aims to identify and deport illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes. Critics say it has resulted in the deportation of thousands of people who have no criminal record. They say the program has undermined trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement.
“There are concerns about the implementation of the program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York,” Mr. Cuomo said in an emailed statement.
Under the program, operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in partnership with local authorities, the fingerprints of people booked into local jails are transmitted to a database reviewed by immigration officials.
Secure Communities began in 2008, when President George W. Bush was in office, and the Obama administration has made it central to immigration enforcement. ICE, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, has stated that the national goal is to have it in place in every U.S. jurisdiction by 2013.
Supporters of Secure Communities say it is a deterrent to crime and boosts public safety.
In a statement, ICE defended the program, calling it a “critical…information sharing partnership” between ICE and the FBI, and stressing that only the federal government—not local authorities—determines whether immigration enforcement is necessary.
“Secure Communities imposes no new or additional requirements on state and local law enforcement,” the statement said.
“Only federal officers make immigration decisions, and they do so only after an individual is arrested for a criminal violation of state law, separate and apart from any violations of immigration law,” the statement added.
In a letter to the homeland security department, Mr. Cuomo said the program appeared to have the opposite of its intended effect of targeting individuals who are a threat to the community by “deterring witnesses to crime and others from working with law enforcement.”
The program was rolled out in select New York communities this year. With the governor’s announcement, Secure Communities will come to a halt even in areas that opted to have it, pending a review of the “mounting evidence that the program is not meeting its stated goal.”
In New York, more than 30 counties have it in place, including Suffolk, Westchester, Nassau and Rockland. New York City, where opposition among lawmakers and advocates was especially fierce, did not participate.
A news release from Mr. Cuomo’s office included statements of support from a wide cross section of individuals. But not everyone was happy to hear of its suspension.
Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco was surprised and disappointed to hear the news.
“I think it’s a shame, it takes away a very useful tool for us,” he said. “Secure Communities was definitely a very effective tool for local enforcement. It’s no secret that we have an overcrowded jail and 10 to 12% of our population are illegal aliens, so we’re looking for anything that will help us get them out of our custody quickly.”
Mr. Cuomo’s announcement follows a growing national backlash against the program that has prompted the ICE’s inspector general to investigative whether the program is meeting its goals.
Last month, Illinois quit Secure Communities. Other states, such as Washington and Minnesota, have declined to join so far.
New York lawmakers and advocates who were lobbying Mr. Cuomo to rescind the state’s deal with immigration officials were pleased to hear the news.
“We’re thrilled,” said Andrew Friedman, an executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. “We think the Secure Communities program is terribly misguided.”
City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights and heads the committee on immigration, said he was one of 38 lawmakers who signed a letter to Mr. Cuomo urging him to quit the program.
“I have people in my district who were afraid to jay walk because they were afraid of being picked up and having their fingerprints sent to the federal government and being deported for a minor infraction,” he said.