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Secure Communities scheme undermines actual safety

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  December 22, 2010 03:30 PM

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American citizens who care about living in a free country should be outraged at the sudden announcement that Massachusetts will cooperate with federal immigration officials by automatically sending to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) the fingerprints and information of anyone who is arrested--including U.S. citizens, people who are wrongfully arrested, and people against whom no criminal charge is ever filed or against whom charges have been dropped.

This program--known as "Secure Communities" or "S-Comm"--will undermine community policing by creating the fear and appearance that local police are working with ICE officials. And it hurts all of us by adding yet another pillar to ever-growing homeland security surveillance state.

Did you know that, under this agreement, ICE retains your fingerprints whether you are a U.S. citizen or not? Whether you are wrongfully arrested or not?

And it happens more than you may think.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was picked up in Arlington and arrested because her car registration had expired--except that it hadn't expired. The police made a mistake, and the charges were later dropped--but only after she was fingerprinted and wrongfully arrested.

"It happens all the time," the judge told her. Nonetheless, this working mom, whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, has no way to get her fingerprints removed from the federal database, and no way to know if the information may one day be used against her.

S-Comm is justified as a way to deport non-citizens who have committed major crimes. But in reality, many of those deported under the program have committed no crime. In fact, in a pilot program conducted in Boston, over half of those deported under S-Comm had not been convicted of any crime at all. It's programs like S-Comm that have given Obama the highest rate of deportations of any president.

In reality, however, S-Comm is designed to sweep up not only immigrants but all of us--U.S. citizens and legal residents alike--and put our fingerprints on file in a huge government uber-database, where they can be accessed by faceless bureaucrats and with virtually no privacy protections whatsoever.

S-Comm is just one piece of a larger effort by Homeland Security to turn state and local law enforcement into agents of the federal government, spying on ordinary Americans. I guess the feds figure they can get away with it by hiding behind anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, hoping that the rest of us won't notice when we're swept up in the surveillance net as well.

The danger here isn't Big Brother--it's a bunch of "little brother and sister" bureaucrats. Remember all those friendly folks at the Registry of Motor Vehicles who help you renew your driver's license? Now, imagine giving them power over a database with your personal biometric data but no oversight. And if you haven't visited the RMV lately, you should check your license and car registration, lest you get pulled over and your prints end up in the ICE database.

I, for one, have never wanted to live in a system akin to East Germany under Stasi control. I prefer an America that lives up to the principles of individual liberty and freedom from unwarranted government intrusion.

I hope Governor Patrick does, too--and reverses course on S-Comm.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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