On June 1, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced he was pulling his state out of the mass deportation program known as Secure Communities. An unsubstantiated report about the decision had leaked out the night before. Although we had a bit of a heads-up that good news was headed our way and had scrambled to make preparations, we were given only 15 minutes lead time before the official announcement came out. For those of us at the Immigrant Defense Project, who have led the campaign to end the program in New York for more than a year, alongside our partners at the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights (NMCIR), those few minutes were a hectic blur. But we knew the day would be one we would celebrate for months and hopefully years.
Joyous occasions are often coupled with giddy disbelief. Despite the odds, we won and we won big. Mizue Aizeki (the organizer at NMCIR with whom I led the Secure Communities campaign) and I were convinced that we could not really win unless we aimed high. We and our diverse partner organizations, community members, and supporters never deviated from our platform of protecting all immigrants, including those with criminal convictions, from Secure Communities; pushed for a full end to a program that has been falsely sold as a key antiterrorism tool; and refused to settle for a revision of the Secure Communities agreement that would continue to allow for the deportation of most immigrants who have had any interaction with the criminal justice system.
I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about our impact. We fully recognize that immigrant communities have very complicated and often profoundly damaged relationships with the criminal justice system and that the U.S. deportation system is still unjust. But ending Secure Communities in New York means that the police can once again attempt to build healthier ties with the communities they are supposed to serve; that immigrants will have fairer, or at least not as disproportionately poor, opportunities to defend themselves in their criminal cases; that hundreds of thousands if not millions of immigrants will be protected from unfair deportation; and that we will all have our due process rights better protected.
The work we did in the fight against Secure Communities can also serve as a model to help immigrant communities and advocates run campaigns that are inclusive rather than divisive, and that allow immigrants to be seen as real human beings who can make mistakes (just like everyone else) without being forced to face a disproportionate second punishment in the form of permanent exile from their families and communities.
We still have a lot of work ahead of us. While New York’s suspension is a critical challenge to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s destructive program, there are plans to have Secure Communities throughout the entire country by 2013. We now need to make sure that all counties stay deactivated and that the New York suspension becomes a permanent termination.