Secure Communities, the newish program at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track and deport criminal aliens, is getting a sudden burst of media attention. Perhaps that is because the DHS 2010 budget is asking for $200 million for the program. Admittedly, by the billion-dollar spending standards of today’s federal government, $200 million can get lost in the crusty crevices of the couch, but $200 million dedicated to a specific law enforcement program is still something to make folks stand up and take notice.

In part, the attention being given to criminal aliens (by both the Administration and the Democratic-led Congress) has a political undertone. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her supporters campaign around the country attack ICE agents as being “un-American” and goose-stepping fascists for enforcing immigration law, they need to offer some evidence that they do indeed have some respect for the immigration laws that they themselves have passed. Focusing on the deportation of criminal aliens is a good way to show that you’re not soft on illegal immigration.

That said, political motivations don’t change the fact that Secure Communities is a good program, and deporting criminal aliens is good policy. And although the program is getting a surge of media attention now, it’s not exactly new policy. Under former ICE Chief Mike Garcia, the agency stepped up its efforts to track and deport criminal aliens within federal prisons. The idea that convicted felons – who also happened to be in the country illegally – would be released back into our communities is outrageous, and monitoring federal prisons was an effective way to make sure that they weren’t. Secure Communities takes the program to a new level – beyond federal prisons and into the vast national infrastructure of state and local jails. It’s a bold program that deserves support.

However, proponents of the program, especially on Capitol Hill, should take care not to become overly complacent by assuming that everyone will agree that this is good policy. Because Secure Communities will become the focal point of this Administration’s immigration enforcement policy, you can bet that it will necessarily also become the focal point of all the contradictions and tensions and competing influences that surround the immigration debate in this country.

Democrats saw the focus on worksite enforcement as an Achilles Heel for the enforcement-oriented Bush Administration, and they were effective in their parries on the campaign trail. I would wager, however, that the success of this anti-enforcement approach had less to do with the tactics of immigration enforcement itself and more to do with the very idea of immigration enforcement.

Those who oppose enforcing immigration laws in this country will likely mobilize against Secure Communities, just as they did against worksite enforcement. You’re already seeing the beginnings of such mobilization –  with immigration advocates, immigration lawyers, civil liberties groups and others arguing that the program will result in the wholesale deportation of Hispanic, including residents who are in the country legally but may have minor violations.

Additionally, you’ll see a heightened debate on the role of state and local officials in immigration enforcement, with many arguing that the responsibility should rest exclusively with federal officials.You saw this debate first surface with “287g,” which refers to the section of the legal code that allows the Department of Homeland Security to partner with state and local law enforcement to enforce immigration law. Traditionally, this has referred to the practice of allowing, say, state troopers to arrest and hold immigrants they encounter during the course of their normal patrol duties and discover to be in the country illegally. Opponents argued that this undermined the ability of local law enforcement to maintain the trust of local communities; in reality, the leadership ranks of local law enforcement wanted neither the fiscal nor political headaches that come with immigration enforcement.

These are just some of the political challenges Secure Communities can expect to face. As the program begins to take shape, and its impact begins to be felt, you may very well begin to hear some of the same arguments that surfaced during the controversies over worksite enforcement. Families being split up, racial profiling, the criminalization of simply being Hispanic. And already advocates of aggressive enforcement are questioning whether the new Administration is abandoning a comprehensive enforcement strategy for a singular and narrow focus on criminal aliens. “Deporting illegal immigrants convicted of crimes is not the only important part of our overall immigration enforcement strategy,” Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, told the Washington Post. “Having to choose between criminal aliens and other illegal immigrants is a false choice. The administration can and should do both.”

The political tussle is just only beginning to take shape. It will be an interesting, and important, debate to watch unfold. It will foreshadow whether the new government will have any better luck at comprehensive immigration reform than the last Administration did.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More