By Seung Min Kim
February 11, 2016
Bernie Sanders is upping pressure on the Obama administration over one of its immigration enforcement initiatives, taking new aim at a controversial program just days before the Democratic presidential contest in Nevada.
In a letter with Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Sanders criticizes the Priority Enforcement Program, which helps federal immigration authorities to work with local law enforcement officials to identify immigrants who should be deported from the United States.
The revamped enforcement initiative is a core part of President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration unveiled in November 2014, although it has gotten considerably less attention than the actions that grant work permits to potentially millions of immigrants here illegally.
But the Priority Enforcement Program — meant to replace the controversial Secure Communities initiative — has attracted its share of criticism from liberals and immigration advocates who argue that it wrongly entangles local policing strategies with immigration enforcement.
“We all share the goals of supporting local law enforcement’s mission to promote community safety,” Sanders and Grijalva wrote in the letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, provided to POLITICO in advance of its release. But “we are concerned that the [Secure Communities’] failed policies continue unabated through PEP.”
In his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders has taken an aggressively liberal stance on immigration and hired several high-profile Latino activists to serve on his campaign. He has vowed to expand Obama’s proposal to grant work permits that are now tied up in the courts.
And Sanders’ immigration positions are likely to come into sharper focus as he campaigns ahead of the Feb. 20 Democratic caucuses in Nevada, where there is a significant population of Latino voters.
Secure Communities, the old enforcement program, had required local jails to detain certain immigrants so immigration officials had time to pick them up and deport them, a practice that had raised significant legal and constitutional concerns. Now, the Priority Enforcement Program asks local jails to merely notify immigration officials.
But many advocates are worried about any level of cooperation between local law enforcement and the feds that may discourage undocumented immigrants from interacting with local police, like to report crimes. And before the administration ended Secure Communities in November 2014, hundreds of municipalities nationwide had declined to cooperate with federal officials — citing the constitutional concerns.
In cities and localities that had limited their cooperation with immigration authorities, federal officials “merely made minor stylistic changes to detainer requests,” Sanders and Grijalva wrote. “In remaining jurisdictions, it is our understanding that DHS continues the failed SCOMM program, albeit with a new name.”
Grijalva is one of two Democrats on Capitol Hill who has endorsed Sanders over Hillary Clinton. The other is Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who along with Grijalva is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“We are all safer when local law enforcement agencies have the trust and ability to work with immigrant communities,” Sanders said. “Victims of crime and domestic violence should not be afraid of being deported for calling the police. Giving a very problematic program a new name is not enough. We need new policies to ensure that immigrant communities are treated fairly.”
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