There was heated testimony on Wednesday night in Chicago at a hearing about a key Obama administration immigration program. The public meetings are providing a noisy venue for protesters who want the program dismantled. Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, are challenging the very existence of the federal Secure Communities program and are pinning many of their hopes on the governor of Illinois, who opposes the federal plan.
Program Has Vocal Critics, Supporters
The Secure Communities program enables the federal government to use fingerprints from local police agencies to identify jail inmates who lack permission to be in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security is looking for ways to keep the program from eroding community trust in local law enforcement. The department has held hearings in Dallas, Los Angeles and, on Wednesday, in Chicago.
There was more than an hour of passionate testimony. A Mexican-born mother said Chicago police arrested her husband after a mix-up over some broken car windows. He ended up in deportation proceedings. The woman held up a federal order for him to board a flight back to Mexico on Thursday.
"He's leaving," she says. "Do you really think that this program is working? How many more families have to suffer?"
But retired teacher Brian McCann brought up a hit-and-run incident that killed a Chicago pedestrian this summer. McCann said the victim was his brother, and the driver an illegal immigrant.
"The offender hit him and then stepped on the gas, rolling over his body, and dragged him several blocks," McCann says. "The offender had recently completed two years' probation for another aggravated felony DUI."
Illinois First State To Pull Out
The Obama administration says Secure Communities is just the tool for deporting such felons.
Since the program's 2008 launch, officials say, it has led to the removal of more than 86,000 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. The program has also snared thousands of others who haven't been convicted. In May, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pulled his state out of the federal initiative.
New York and Massachusetts followed with similar steps. But this month, the Obama administration told states they have no choice.
Attorney Brittney Nystrom of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum sees grounds for a court challenge. She points, for example, to a federal agreement for Illinois to take part in Secure Communities in the first place.
"There is a termination clause that at least Gov. Quinn activated when he decided to opt out of the program," Nystrom says.
So Nystrom says the Obama administration may be vulnerable in court. Attorneys with two immigrant advocacy groups say they're talking with Quinn's office about legal options. But a Quinn spokeswoman says it's too soon to discuss any options.
The federal government, for its part, is playing down the Illinois agreement.
"It was one of those things where we wanted to be able to work with the locals and let them know about the program," says Jon Gurule of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "But, from the operational side, it's a federal information-sharing between two federal agencies and it's congressionally mandated."
And the federal government is expected to hear even more debate when it holds another public hearing on Secure Communities next week, close to the nation's capital in Arlington, Va.