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Bay Area forum condemns Secure Communities immigration program

The deportation program that was intended to target 'serious convicted criminals' is also sweeping up people with minor offenses or who were never convicted. A state bill aims to let counties opt out.

August 28, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators block a ramp entrance to the Los Angeles federal building last week in protest of the Secure Communities program. A similar protest was held in Oakland Saturday.
Demonstrators block a ramp entrance to the Los Angeles federal building… (Damian Dovarganes, Associated…)

Reporting from Oakland —  

More than 200 people crammed into a meeting room Saturday in this city's heavily Latino Fruitvale District to condemn Secure Communities, the federal deportation program that was billed as targeting "serious convicted criminals" but has ensnared many who committed minor offenses or were never convicted of the crimes on which they were arrested.

Joined by a handful of Bay Area elected leaders, the largely Spanish-speaking crowd called on Gov. Jerry Brown and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris to take a stance against the program. Forum leaders also sought support for a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) that would attempt to make Secure Communities optional for California counties, limit its scope to convicted felons and offer protections to crime victims.

"We're here to say we'll work with you until this program changes," Ammiano's district director, Kimberly Alvarenga, told the cheering crowd.

Weeping, a 29-year-old San Francisco woman spoke of her husband's April arrest after a dust-up at an Oakland event prompted security guards to turn him over to police. Although the painter from Mexico City was never charged, he is now in deportation proceedings, his wife told the crowd, using the alias "Ivone."

"The kids are crying inconsolably and don't know what to do," she said of their daughters, age 4 and 7.

The event comes as controversy plagues Secure Communities nationwide. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data show that 55% of those targeted for deportation under the program committed minor offenses or, like Ivone's husband, were arrested but never charged or convicted.

Under Secure Communities — created to focus limited federal resources on immigrants who posed threats — fingerprints forwarded by local jails to the FBI for criminal checks are shared with ICE. Opponents say the program has eroded immigrant communities' trust in police.

Furthermore, while local governments were told when the program was launched in 2008 that participation would be optional, ICE gradually altered its message and now says it never was. Illinois, New York and Massachusetts have said they want out. But on Aug. 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton announced that the agency had voided signed agreements with the states that had appeared to give them a say in participation.

The federal stance raises questions about whether Ammiano's bill would have impact if it became law. But backers of the bill say they are looking for legal avenues that could give counties control over the program. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, for example, has declined to hold certain low-level offenders for ICE.

Opponents also are reviewing the legality of ICE's voiding of the state agreements, and whether ICE is entitled to use local fingerprint data without permission.

Federal officials have offered recent concessions. Immigration prosecutors now have more discretion over whom they push to deport. And the Obama administration, which supports Secure Communities, announced this month that it will review all 300,000 people facing deportation to prioritize serious criminals over students and families.

Brown signed California's agreement with ICE in 2009 when he was attorney general but has since been silent on the program. "Our stance … is that, as a result of the federal government's policy, we do not have the option to opt out of it," Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said in an email Saturday.

Harris expressed concerns that the program has "strayed far beyond" the goal of getting "serious criminals off the streets," saying in a statement that it is "critical to public safety that victims and witnesses of crime can step forward and report crime without fear of reprisal."

leora.romney@latimes.com

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