Rick Holmes: No steps closer to immigration reform

Rick Holmes

Want to start a fight? Bring up immigration in mixed company.

You might think after all these years of battling over immigration laws and enforcement, we'd be closer to some kind of resolution. You'd be wrong.

We seem to be as far apart as ever, and common ground –– if you think you've found it –– is a dangerous place to hang out.

Take the Secure Communities program, this month's flashpoint. This federal program was intended to be a compromise. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn't sweep through immigrant communities checking papers, nor would local cops be asked to chase and prosecute illegal immigrants.

Instead, through an unobtrusive sharing of information between law enforcement agencies –– specifically, sharing fingerprints with the ICE –– immigrants who are here illegally and had been charged or convicted for violent and other serious crimes would be turned over to ICE for speedy deportation.

The anti-immigration people like the Secure Communities program ("not anti-immigration," I hear them saying, but "anti-illegal immigration") because they like anything that leads to anyone being deported. The immigration advocates don't, apparently preferring the presence of violent criminals in their midst to even a modest attempt to run them out of the country.

The pro-immigrant folks decided they like the program even less when they got a look at ICE's statistics. It turns out most of the people deported through Secure Communities aren't serious offenders after all.

According to a report on the program issued in May, for instance, 45,701 sets of fingerprints have been shared with the ICE by participating Massachusetts communities since the program was launched in October 2008. ICE determined which were illegally in the country and ended up deporting 345 of them. But more than half of them –– 180, to be exact –– weren't charged or convicted of a level-one crime at all. ICE categorizes these as "non-criminal immigration violators."

“What do you mean, 'non-criminal’?” I hear the anti-immigrant crowd yelling. "What part of illegal don't you understand?"

But the fact is, most immigration violations, like overstaying a visa or crossing a border, are not part of the criminal code. They are civil violations, punishable through an administrative process, but not through the criminal courts. Maybe this should be changed, and some immigration reform proposals would criminalize these acts. But Congress hasn't been able to pass an immigration reform bill since 1986.

The ICE report has galvanized the opposition to Secure Communities. In New York, the Civil Liberties Union complained that 82 percent of those deported had not been convicted of a crime. In response to the rising objections, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pulled New York out of the program. So did Illinois, and a bill is moving in Sacramento that would pull California out, as well.

Gov. Deval Patrick has now announced that Massachusetts won't sign the memorandum of agreement with the Department of Homeland Security, which is the ICE's parent, putting all its cities and towns into Secure Communities. The howls from the anti-immigrant side have been predictably intense.

As is often the case when you look at an immigration issue up close, the Secure Communities issue isn't as cut-and-dry as the loudest voices would have us believe.

First, the idea that murderers will freely roam the streets because of Patrick's action is, at best, exaggerated. ICE's fingerprint checks don't identify dangerous criminals, and it doesn't even have a database of crimes or criminals, except those who have been processed through immigration courts.

The FBI has such a database, and it can quickly tell if someone arrested here is wanted for a crime elsewhere. That's why local police routinely send copies of fingerprints to the FBI.

And with or without Secure Communities, lines of communication are open between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

"Practically speaking, ICE works with local police all the time," Mary Beth Heffernan, Massachusetts secretary of public safety, told me Thursday.

Police chiefs are split on the program. Some like the idea of sharing information with any agency that can help them identify criminals. But others worry that any cooperation with ICE, which is especially feared among immigrants who are often suspicious of police in general, will have a chilling affect on police-community relations.

So what's all the fuss about? The politics of immigration.

It's no coincidence that the governors who are rejecting Secure Communities are Democrats interested in the support of immigrants and those who advocate for them. Or that those who like the program and applaud the fact that ICE is deporting thousands of immigrants who have committed no crime lean to the right.

Politicians on one side are pandering to the anti-immigrant masses, while those on the other side are pandering to immigrants who have traditionally voted for Democrats.

The positions appear to be hardening. For years, one side has said there could be no reforms without enforcement. The near tripling of the border patrol in the Southwest and the steady rise of arrests and deportations has done nothing to soften their opposition to anything they can deride as "amnesty."

The other side now seems to be saying they'll support no enforcement without reforms. Congress has refused to approve any kind of path to citizenship for any of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. Even the DREAM Act, which would allow immigrants illegally brought here as children to earn their way to a legal status, couldn't get past Republicans in the Senate.

President Barack Obama has made speeches supporting comprehensive immigration reform, but he has produced nothing, except the Secure Communities program, which was launched by his predecessor.

I always thought Congress could forge a grand bargain on immigration by fixing the things nearly everyone disliked about the law and calling for increased enforcement at the borders and the workplace in exchange for a process by which some of the undocumented immigrants could qualify to stay here legally.

A few years ago, Ted Kennedy, John McCain and George W. Bush thought such a bargain was possible. But they couldn't make it happen then, and that kind of deal seems even more unlikely today.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co.. He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.