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Noncriminals swept up in federal deportation program

Secure Communities, a federal program launched in 2008 with the stated goal of identifying and deporting more illegal immigrants 'convicted of serious crimes,' has netted many noncriminals or those who committed misdemeanors.

April 25, 2011|By Lee Romney and Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Francisco and Los Angeles — More than once, Norma recalls, she yearned to dial 911 when her partner hit her. But the undocumented mother of a U.S.-born toddler was too fearful of police and too broken of spirit to do so.

In October, she finally worked up the courage to call police — and paid a steep price.

Officers who responded found her sobbing, with a swollen lower lip. But a red mark on her alleged abuser's cheek prompted police to book them both into the San Francisco County Jail while investigators sorted out the details.

With that, Norma was swept into the wide net of Secure Communities, a federal program launched in 2008 with the stated goal of identifying and deporting more illegal immigrants "convicted of serious crimes."

But Norma was never convicted of a crime. She was not charged in the abuse case, though the jail honored a request to turn her over to immigration authorities for possible deportation.

"I had called the police to help me," said Norma, 31, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears that speaking out may jeopardize her case. "I think it's unjust…. Even with a traffic ticket we can now be deported."

Under the program, fingerprints of all inmates booked into local jails and cross-checked with the FBI's criminal database are now forwarded by that agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be screened for immigration status. Officials said the new system would focus enforcement efforts on violent felons such as those convicted of murder, rape and kidnapping.

But Secure Communities is now mired in controversy. Recently released ICE data show that nearly half of those ensnared by the program have been noncriminals, like Norma, or those who committed misdemeanors.

In addition, hundreds of ICE emails released in response to litigation by immigrant and civil rights groups show the agency knowingly misled local and state officials to believe that participation in the program was voluntary while internally acknowledging that this was not the case.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) on Friday accused ICE officials of lying to local governments and to Congress and called for a probe into whether ICE Director John Morton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees the agency, were aware of the deception.

San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are among those jurisdictions that sought to prevent fingerprint data from being automatically routed to ICE. Although that data will still be forwarded to immigration authorities, both counties are now crafting policies that would deny ICE hold requests for inmates booked on minor infractions.

There is still much confusion over what legal authority states have to change their participation agreements with ICE, which now says they are unnecessary.

A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) to be heard in committee Tuesday would require California to modify its agreement with ICE so that only fingerprints of convicted felons are run through the immigration database. The bill also contains protections for domestic violence victims and juveniles and would make the program optional for counties.

"With punitive methods that sweep them all up, there's no trust," said Ammiano, adding that with 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, the policy should be specifically tailored to dangerous criminals. "We have had children come home from school and their parents are not there. That is not an enlightened policy."

A similar bill is pending in Illinois, while Colorado managed to negotiate a modified agreement that includes some protections for domestic violence victims. Washington recently became the first state to refuse to join the federal program, and Washington, D.C., withdrew altogether.

Federal officials now contend that all states and counties must participate in Secure Communities by 2013. They said Washington, D.C., was allowed to temporarily terminate its agreement only as a courtesy.

But the program's legality remains an open question. Homeland Security officials say they need no approval from counties or states because Secure Communities is merely "an information-sharing program between federal partners." Lofgren and other critics, however, question the federal government's right to impose the program on local jails. Backers of Ammiano's bill say that ICE has exceeded its authority and plan to move forward with proposed changes to California's agreement.

ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas said that the Secure Communities program resulted in the deportation of 72,000 convicted criminals last year, more than at any time in agency history. Of those, 26,000 had committed major violent offenses.

"By removing criminal aliens more efficiently and effectively, ICE is reducing the possibility that these individuals will commit additional crimes in U.S. communities," she said.

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