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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

Some who appear in the data to be noncriminals or low-level offenders have gang affiliations, were arrested for drunk driving or were previously deported and returned, she said. Of California's fingerprint matches, 22% to date are fugitives who had ignored deportation orders or were expelled and returned illegally, data shows.

Norma, for example, had left the country voluntarily after an immigration arrest in 2002 but returned the same year, ICE officials said.

In 2009, California signed one of the earliest agreements with ICE to participate in Secure Communities. The program is now in 41 states and 1,211 local jurisdictions, including all California counties.

Critics say the program discourages immigrants from reporting crimes and encourages racial profiling because officers might book individuals on minor infractions knowing that their fingerprints will be screened by ICE. They point out that the program does not screen out those arrested but never charged with a crime.

A Homeland Security official said the department has hired a criminologist to examine arrest statistics for signs of racial profiling and is looking to "enhance the decision-making process" to reduce the number of noncriminals being deported. The department also will soon unveil a policy for domestic violence victims.

Supporters applaud Secure Communities for replacing ad hoc immigration enforcement with a nationwide effort that targets criminals.

"Before what was happening was the local officers had no way of knowing or had to take special steps to find out if the people they arrested were potentially removable from the community," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher immigration enforcement. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca also supports the program.

But Lofgren and others are upset over what they see as the deception with which the Secure Communities program was implemented.

The congresswoman was most angered by the hundreds of ICE internal documents recently released by order of a federal judge. A review of the correspondence reveals an agency that misled local and state officials as it struggled to defuse what one email called "a domino effect" of political opposition.

As early as November 2009, Secure Communities Acting Director Marc Rapp declared in an email that "voluntary" meant "the ability to receive the immigration response" about fingerprint matches, not the ability to decline to provide the data in the first place.

But for nearly a year that was not made clear to local agencies. "They said, 'You set up a meeting and you opt out.' That's why we're pretty unhappy," said Santa Clara County Counsel Miguel Marquez.

San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey also unsuccessfully sought to opt out of the program last summer. Hennessey is developing a policy that would honor ICE detainer requests only for felons and misdemeanants whose crimes involve "violence, guns, and certain sex offenses." Santa Clara County is exploring a similar policy.

In July, Lofgren wrote Napolitano and U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder seeking "a clear explanation of how local law enforcement agencies may opt out of Secure Communities by having the fingerprints they collect … checked against criminal, but not immigration databases." In September, she received letters back stating that locals need only submit the request in writing to state and federal officials.

ICE officials knew the language was misleading. "I like the thought. But reading the response alone would lead one to believe that a site can elect to never participate should they wish," an FBI staffer wrote to ICE colleagues in an August email exchange about the draft. In October, Napolitano and Morton finally held a news conference to clarify that opting out of Secure Communities is not possible.

A Homeland Security official said Friday that "Secure Communities is not voluntary and never has been. Unfortunately, this was not communicated as clearly as it should have been to state and local jurisdictions."

Meanwhile, Norma is preparing to testify on behalf of Ammiano's bill. She attends a domestic violence support group and cares for her 3-year-old son, Brandon, in a rented room while wearing a bulky ankle monitor.

"Now that I know my rights, I want to fight," said Norma, who recently graduated from a leadership program to help other abuse victims.

Immigration visas are available for domestic violence victims who meet specific criteria. If she loses her case, Norma said, she will return to Mexico.

"This strength they've given me, this sense of security, this I will carry with me anywhere I go."

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