Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has announced his intention to drop out of the federal Secure Communities program – a decision that may serve as a precedent for other states where opposition is also mounting.

Secure Communities, which calls for automatic checks of  the immigration status of those arrested by local and state police, is "flawed," Quinn said in a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The governor, who made his announcement on Wednesday, made clear that Illinois State Police will no longer participate.  

The withdrawal is a serious blow to the controversial immigration enforcement initiative – which has polarized communities in other states, like California and Massachusetts – despite federal pressure to implement the program nationwide by 2013. 

In Massachusetts, activists say that protests by communities across the country are necessary to prevent the federal government from imposing the program on local jurisdictions.

“It’s not inevitable,” said Sarang Sekhavat, federal policy director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy, or MIRA, Coalition. “There is a lot of pressure on the Obama administration to not let this happen...we could stop it.”

Under Secure Communities, once a person is arrested, local police can take their fingerprints and send them to an immigration database maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Standard procedure now only includes running fingerprints through an FBI database.

The program has operated as a pilot program in Boston since 2006. 

State officials scrambled to hold community meetings after Gov. Deval Patrick backtracked on his promise not to sign onto the program, prompting an uproar from many local communities.

At a recent community meeting in Chelsea, more than 400 people packed a high school auditorium to hear state officials explain the program.

“This is separating families,” Antonia Córdoba said in Spanish. 

Córdoba, 52, a local resident from El Salvador, was carrying a sign that read “Secure Communities Will Make our Community Unsafe.”

She said Secure Communities is the result of an anti-immigrant trend that started with Arizona’s SB1070 law. 

“This has been happening state by state,” she said. “To me, it’s like the plague.”

Others welcome the program, though. 

Carlos Hernández, 50, a disabled veteran and native of the Dominican Republic, is a supporter, and believes the program has fallen victim to widespread misinformation.

“We’re looking for the governor to implement Secure Communities,” Hernández, a member of the North Shore Tea Party, said. “This doesn’t discriminate. 

"Everyone gets checked," he said, adding that ICE only targets certain types of immigrants. "They’re only looking for Level 1 and 2 offenders.”

ICE officials say the purpose of the program is to pursue those who have committed serious crimes. The program now operates in 1,253 jurisdictions in 42 states, said ICE spokeswoman, Nicole A. Navas through an e-mail statement. 

Eight states nationwide have fully signed on.

“ICE has prioritized the removal of aliens who pose a danger to national security or public safety, with a particular focus on convicted criminals,” Navas said.

From October 2008 through March 31, ICE removed 101,741 persons, including a total of 72,445 immigrants convicted of a crime. Of those, 26,473 were Level 1 offenders convicted of major violent offenses, such as murder and rape, Navas said.

Still, activists claim that the majority of deportees are non-criminal offenders. 

According to ICE figures that MIRA obtained from a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed against the federal agency, 31 percent of national deportations were of people convicted of misdemeanors while 29 percent were of people with no criminal record at all.

Massachusetts officials have held five of six community meetings to glean feedback to give to ICE officials before the program gets officially implemented statewide.

“Our understanding from ICE is that it will be implemented nationally, whether the state signs on or not,” said Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Attempts to contact the governor's office for further comment were unsuccessful due to deadline constraints. 

According to ICE, local jurisdictions and states cannot opt out of Secure Communities because it is an information sharing program. That means once the fingerprints are checked against the FBI database, they are automatically sent to the immigration database, Navas said. 

However, jurisdictions may choose not to receive the identifications that result from the fingerprint checks.

"The local ICE field office, and not the state or local law enforcement agency, determines what immigration enforcement action, if any, is appropriate," Navas said.

In addition to Illinois, however, California, too, has introduced a bill that would allow local communities to opt out of the program.

Sekhavat said that immigration reform at the national level will now be taking law enforcement programs like Secure Communities into account.

“We’re actually gearing up because the focus now, nationally, is to get the [federal government] to change the way laws are enforced,” Sekhavat said.

Tanya Pérez-Brennan is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She can be reached at tpb775@yahoo.com.

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