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(Washington, DC) – The use of state and local authorities to enforce United States immigration laws undermines public safety by raising fear of the police among immigrant communities, Human Rights Watch said in a short film released today. States and cities across the US should separate community police work from federal immigration enforcement.

The 3:44-minute video, which contains accounts from immigrant crime victims in Nashville, Tennessee, illustrates that the federal Secure Communities program, which enlists local law enforcement throughout the country in federal efforts to identify immigrants eligible for deportation, makes immigrants afraid to report crimes to the police. Human Rights Watch reported in 2012 on similar fears of law enforcement among female farmworkers who are survivors of sexual assault.

“The federal task of identifying people for deportation should not get blurred with the state function of protecting people from crimes like rape,” said Alison Parker, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “When those functions are confused and whole swathes of people say they’re ‘afraid to call 911,’ public safety suffers.”

Under Secure Communities, begun by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2008 and expanded nationwide in 2013, fingerprints of people apprehended by local law enforcement are sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to be checked against ICE databases. When ICE identifies someone as potentially deportable, it asks the police to detain the person for transfer to the immigration agency and possible removal from the United States.

The federal government has claimed that Secure Communities and federal immigration enforcement activities have mainly targeted serious, violent criminals for deportation. However, Human Rights Watch analyses of government data in 2009 and 2013 show that hundreds of thousands of people with minor nonviolent criminal convictions and with strong family ties in the United States are getting swept up in the process.  

Despite important efforts by police and community groups in places like Nashville to engage in a positive way  with immigrants, both police officers and immigrants told Human Rights Watch  that that hard-won trust is eroded every time an immigrant ends up in deportation proceedings after contacting the police. 

“Miguel,” an immigrant in Nashville who needed police assistance to intervene with a troubled family member, and ended up in deportation proceedings after making the call, told Human Rights Watch: “All I can say is that if I were in that moment again, I would not call the police. The truth is that that phone call changed my life.”

The situation is exacerbated by the failure of the US Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants, Human Rights Watch said. In light of that failure, the Obama administration may soon announce changes to its enforcement priorities to limit deportations of immigrants with immigration violations but no criminal records. There is little indication, however, that the administration intends to limit Secure Communities itself.

Counties in the states of Oregon, Washington, and Colorado recently announced that they would no longer comply with ICE requests to detain non-citizens, known as “holds,” after a federal court decision  in April 2014 ruled that such “holds” violate immigrants’ constitutional rights.

The federal government should end its Secure Communities program, or at a minimum focus it on genuine and serious threats to public safety, Human Rights Watch said. Cities, counties, and states throughout the country, including Tennessee, should join a growing list of places including California, Connecticut, and Chicago that have strictly limited their engagement with Secure Communities.

“Police efforts to have good relations with immigrants are undermined when Secure Communities sweeps up people with minor offenses or no criminal record at all,” Parker said. “ICE needs to focus on people who are truly dangerous, instead of on the unauthorized migrant mom with US citizen kids driving with a broken taillight.” 

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