On September 28, 2010, Esteban Garces led dozens of people in blaze-orange T-shirts into the Arlington County boardroom. The son of Bolivian immigrants, Garces had forgone a higher-paying career in network security to be a community organizer for the Northern Virginia nonprofit Tenants and Workers United. The members of the group were filled with excitement that day: they saw Arlington as the first step in challenging the mounting feeling of insecurity created by new immigration policies. At the head of the room, County Board member Walter Tejada introduced a resolution opposing the controversial Secure Communities program, stating that it "will create divisions in our community and promote a culture of fear and distrust of law enforcement that threatens public safety and makes communities less safe." When the board voted, it was unanimous.

Garces and the group had launched their campaign in April of that year, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enrolled Arlington in Secure Communities. Largely unknown at the time, the federal immigration enforcement program enlists local police to share the fingerprints of every individual arrested with federal immigration authorities. Those identified as being in the country unlawfully are then located by ICE for detention and, eventually, deportation.

Garces recalls thinking that S-Comm was "the new incarnation of 287(g)," the contentious federal-local enforcement partnership that trains some police officers to directly enforce immigration law. For Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group in Washington, DC, and then-chair of the Arlington Human Rights Commission, the new program presented a fresh opportunity to look at the broader human rights violations associated with local enforcement of immigration law. And Arlington, with its history of progressive and pro-immigrant politics, seemed like an ideal testing ground for an organized pushback.

Garces, Huang and other activists worked quickly to form a coalition of immigrant organizations, human rights advocates, and church and union leaders concerned that S-Comm would create fear within the county’s immigrant communities. The coalition also worked closely with elected officials and law enforcement authorities to shape the county’s response to the program. But despite their local focus, says coalition member Edgar Aranda-Yanoc of the Legal Aid Justice Center, "we always were thinking about the national level."

Their efforts paid off at that meeting in late September, when the five Arlington County Board members unanimously approved the resolution asking ICE to allow the county to opt out of the program. Meanwhile, a similar process was taking place on the other side of the country. Less than an hour before the Arlington meeting, the Board of County Supervisors in Santa Clara, California, also voted to withdraw from S-Comm. The resolutions in Arlington and Santa Clara, in turn, followed earlier efforts by San Francisco and the District of Columbia to withdraw.

Even though DC remains the only jurisdiction to have successfully opted out, these coalitions inspired other localities and states to raise concerns about S-Comm. The flurry of resolutions revealed the emergence of a diffuse network of immigrant rights advocates, faith communities, local law enforcement and elected officials across the United States joined in opposition to S-Comm. As Garces is fond of saying, "The best thing you can do in the absence of [federal] immigration reform, when you know that the possibilities are very much close to zero, is to act locally to have national impact."

Enforcing federal immigration law locally

Until recently, immigration law was considered a federal issue. In the years following 9/11, however, local and state governments became increasingly vocal actors in immigration reform and control. During the mid-2000s, local jurisdictions such as Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and Virginia’s Prince William County enacted restrictive housing and enforcement ordinances targeting undocumented immigrants. In the wake of Arizona’s punitive immigration law, SB 1070, states like Georgia and Alabama have adopted similar tactics (the Obama administration has challenged the Arizona law, and on December 12 the Supreme Court agreed to review its constitutionality, with a ruling likely by July). While these local ordinances and statewide laws have been highly controversial, federal-local partnership programs have arguably had a larger impact on immigrants and communities across the country.

S-Comm is the latest and perhaps most ambitious effort to extend immigration enforcement inward from US borders. Initiated in 2008 but expanded dramatically on President Obama’s watch, the program casts undocumented immigrants as a security threat requiring extraordinary measures. It sets out to meet this threat by merging federal criminal and immigration databases and requiring local law enforcement to submit biometric data to both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Now active in almost 1,900 jurisdictions, S-Comm is at the center of expanded enforcement efforts that have led to more than 800,000 deportations over the past two years. It is scheduled to be implemented in each of the country’s 3,181 jurisdictions by 2013.

As the Obama administration has rolled out the program, federal officials have been met with opposition from an unlikely alliance of local actors. In Arlington, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Boston and other cities, immigrant rights organizations and advocates against domestic violence have teamed up with local officials to critique and oppose the program. Instead of making good on the promise of greater security, they argue, S-Comm actually undermines public safety by making immigrants afraid to report crimes or assist in police investigations. These fears have been realized during the first three years of the program.

Although ICE has promised to prioritize dangerous criminals, in practice S-Comm has cast a much wider net. As of November 30, only 26 percent of the nearly 156,000 individuals deported under the program have been "Level 1" offenders (those convicted of serious crimes like murder, rape and kidnapping). In contrast, 54 percent of immigrants processed through the program were guilty of committing a misdemeanor offense or were never charged with a crime. A 2011 report from the Warren Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, found further evidence of collateral damage. The report showed that Latinos are overrepresented in Secure Communities, comprising 93 percent of all arrests under the program even though they make up only 77 percent of the undocumented population. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of individuals arrested through the program have a US citizen spouse or child.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the program has injected fear into immigrant communities. Following S-Comm’s implementation, some Northern Virginia community-based organizations reported sharp registration declines for ESL classes. This trend continued as more people were stopped for minor traffic violations and ended up in deportation proceedings. In some cases, Garces reported, immigrant victims of car accidents have declined to wait for the police. "They are avoiding interaction with the police at all costs, even if it means their health," he said.

This fear has been heightened by several high-profile cases. Despite ICE’s insistence that it practices prosecutorial discretion, victims of domestic violence in Maryland and California found themselves in deportation proceedings after being arrested by local police. In September, federal immigration officials conducted raids only days after hearings on alleged racial profiling by police in Shelbyville, Tennessee. According to advocates, immigrants who spoke at the hearings appeared to be the targets. ICE denies that the raids were retaliatory, but the action threatens to further silence immigrant communities.

Huang describes S-Comm as part of a fundamental shift in how immigrants are perceived in the United States. "Instead of focusing on people whose behavior demonstrates a threat to the community, the program is based on allegations of crimes because the database check happens before a trial or conviction," she says. "Undocumented immigrants are being portrayed as criminals," even though entering the country without authorization or overstaying a visa remains a civil, not criminal, offense. By showing that local immigration enforcement threatens trust in law enforcement and community policing strategies, advocates like Huang are working to redefine the notion of public safety in a way that includes all residents of a community, regardless of their legal status.

Working locally to achieve national change

Efforts to build inclusive communities are advancing at the state level, too. Following the resolutions in Arlington and Santa Clara, ICE reversed course and said that local jurisdictions could no longer opt out. But even though the Arlington Coalition failed to transform immigration policy locally, it served as a catalyst for statewide pushback. The combined impact of the efforts in DC, Arlington, Santa Clara and San Francisco created room for advocacy networks in Illinois, New York and Massachusetts to challenge S-Comm at the state level.

In the spring of 2011, the governors of these three states attempted to leave the program. Again, ICE responded by canceling previously signed Memoranda of Agreements with state governments and announcing that participation was no longer optional. Despite this setback, resistance continued. States such as Illinois, California and Maryland have combined challenges to S-Comm with the passage or expansion of DREAM Act legislation, which permits undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and, in some cases, receive financial aid. Underlying these efforts is an acknowledgment that immigrants, including those without legal documents, are valued and contributing members of state and local communities.

In response to the growing opposition to S-Comm, the Obama administration reaffirmed its policy of prosecutorial discretion. In June, DHS suggested that deportation could be delayed for noncriminals and those eligible for relief under the DREAM Act. It also appointed a task force of law enforcement officials and community leaders to evaluate the Secure Communities program. Immigrant advocates, however, remain skeptical. There is little evidence of prosecutorial discretion on the ground, in part evidenced by the deportation of almost 400,000 immigrants annually under the Obama administration. A recent Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse report also showed that ICE actually targeted fewer criminals for deportation in the 2011 fiscal year than the previous one. And while the DHS task force expressed serious concerns about Secure Communities, its final report in September failed to call for the program’s suspension.

Because of the inability to opt out of S-Comm, several localities have directly challenged ICE’s practice of issuing detainers to local jails to hold immigrants until they can be picked up by federal immigration officials. In June, San Francisco sheriff Mike Hennessey stopped honoring ICE detainers for certain low-level offenders. Citing prohibitive costs, Cook County, Illinois, and Santa Clara also passed ordinances this fall that direct law enforcement to ignore detainer requests unless the county is reimbursed by ICE. Such actions challenge the link between the criminal justice system and federal immigration policy, but they are limited to cities and states with progressive elected and law enforcement officials.

Pushing the struggle forward

Ultimately, Garces took the fight to the formal political arena. This November, he received 44 percent of the vote for the District 2 seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, which covers part of Prince William County. Back in 2007, he organized a coalition of Latino business owners to push back against the county’s Arizona-like immigration law. Fears about racial profiling and the collapse of the housing market led many Latino residents to flee the county, contributing to one of the sharpest economic declines in the Washington metro area during the Great Recession.

Although he lost the race, Garces plans to continue working to promote civic engagement among traditionally marginalized communities. For him, the move into electoral politics was not a life-long ambition but rather one born of frustration with the political system. In places like Arlington and Prince William County, Garces says, people affected by local immigration enforcement "don’t speak up either because of fear or because they don’t know how to." But he insists that "if given the opportunity, they would be part of the civic process. And when folks get more involved in the political process and realize that they have a voice, we will all be better off."

As Sarahí Uribe of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network suggests, "the immigrant rights struggle is a struggle for democracy, transparency, privacy and public safety." Immigrants, it turns out, have the same concerns as other Americans.