Less than three weeks after Dean Esserman took the helm of the New Haven Police Department, a federal immigration program is threatening his attempts to revive community policing.

This week saw the beginning of New Haven’s efforts to resist Secure Communities, a federal program that would require the NHPD to send fingerprints of suspected illegal immigrants to Immigration and

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Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials as part of the federal government’s efforts to identify and deport undocumented residents. Led by Mayor John DeStefano Jr., city and community leaders held a press conference at Columbus Family Academy in Fair Haven Tuesday morning announcing their opposition to the program’s implementation in the city followed by a community forum in the school’s gym Wednesday night.

At the press conference, several speakers — including DeStefano, NHPD Lt. Luiz Casanova, State Reps. Pat Dillon, Roland Lemar and Juan Candelaria and current and incoming New Haven aldermen — called on the state to not honor ICE’s calls for detention of suspected illegal immigrants unless a suspect has committed a major crime or is on the terrorist watch list. Secure Communities, which began in 2008 under the Bush administration and was initially promoted as a means to target serious criminals, is actually used to deport productive, long-time city residents who may have committed an offense as small as a traffic violation or loitering, they said.

If a suspect’s information suggests he or she may be undocumented, ICE officials can, under Secure Communities, request that the individual be detained for up to 48 hours to allow for a deportation official to arrive. Although currently an optional program, Secure Communities will be mandatory across the nation by 2013, according to DeStefano.

According to Sandra Staub, the American Civil Liberties Union’s state legal director, there have been 133 deportations in Fairfield County since Secure Communities was implemented there. Sixteen of those deported had committed major or violent crimes, she said,

DeStefano argued that implementing Secure Communities in New Haven would hurt the NHPD’s community policing initiative, which is meant to improve the department’s ties with residents.

“Secure Communities would destroy an essential element of trust that New Haven and the police department have worked hard over the past five years to build,” DeStefano said. He added that “virtually none” of the city’s crime is committed by its immigrant population, removing the need for the program altogether.

Arguing that the program would lead to racial profiling and fewer community members helping police solve cases, Dillon said that Secure Communities would make the department the “enemy of the people.” She cited a story in which an undocumented man in Washington, D.C. reported a mugging he witnessed to police, only to be arrested himself under Secure Communities.

“If we want to have a secure community, people need to feel comfortable coming forward,” Dillon said.

Lemar recalled the 2007 ICE raids which resulted in the detention of 29 Fair Haven residents. The raids, conducted shortly after the city passed legislation to provide all New Haven residents with an identification card, serve as an example of the damaging effect Secure Communities could have on immigrant neighborhoods. Following the raids, he said, immigrants in all parts of the city stopped going to school, shopping at local businesses and even leaving their homes.

Casanova, who spoke on behalf of the NHPD, said the department is not in favor of participating in Secure Communities, adding that it “almost definitely” would have an adverse effect on its relationship with New Haven immigrant community. Chief Esserman reiterated the department’s opposition to the program at Wednesday evening’s community hearing.

“I think I speak for most American police chiefs that we need to spend our time and our energy in building trust in the community, not losing it,” Esserman said.

Ward 6 Aldermwoman Dolores Colón added that implementing Secure Communities is a waste of resources given all the other issues facing the city. She called on the city to use the NHPD to take care of local problems instead of federal problems, drawing applause and cheers from the audience.

The community forum, moderated by the Board of Alderman’s human services and public safety committees, drew over 100 community members to the gymnasium of Columbus Family Academy at 255 Blatchley Ave. Nearly 30 attendees testified before the committees, including representatives of community organizations such as the New Haven People’s Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Former Board of Aldermen President Tomas Reyes urged the current Board to oppose the program because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Only one attendee, Alen Felder, spoke in favor of participating in Secure Communities.

“It’s morally wrong for America to bring another country’s underclass to compete for what we have here,” Felder, who is black, said. “I don’t think I need to stand here and hyperbolize who America’s underclass is here in the city of New Haven. They deport blacks to the department of corrections and I don’t hear anything about that.”

New Haven has long been regarded as a “sanctuary city” for undocumented residents. In addition to the 2007 rollout of the Elm City resident cards, designed to help people with no immigration status open bank accounts and thereby avoid being easy theft targets, a 2006 executive order by DeStefano barred police officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status while investigating a crime.