Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) speaks on the Secure Communities… (Damian Dovarganes, Associated…)
Members of California's congressional delegation called on Gov. Jerry Brown Friday to join three other states in suspending participation in a controversial federal immigration enforcement program.
The seven Democratic representatives acted after the Los Angeles City Council voted overwhelmingly this week to support legislation allowing local communities to opt out of the Secure Communities program and Sheriff Lee Baca, a strong proponent, qualified his support in a letter to immigrant activists.
In recent weeks, governors in Illinois, New York and Massachusetts have sought to suspend or have declined to enter into Secure Communities participation agreements.
When it was launched in 2008, Secure Communities was touted as a way to target serious convicts for deportation. Under the program, the fingerprints of all arrestees booked into local jails are forwarded to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for screening.
But the program has come under fire from critics because a large percentage of those caught up in it are people who have been arrested but not subsequently convicted of a crime or are low-level offenders. Activists said the program discourages illegal immigrants from reporting crimes or cooperating with police investigations.
"This is not about trying to stop ICE from enforcing the law," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles). "It's about having them focus their attention on what they said Secure Communities was all about.
"The time has come," he said, "to suspend our state's participation."
Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood), Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk) and Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) also signed the letter and said they hoped to meet with Brown to discuss the future of the program, which he backed before winning the governor's office.
Supporters of the program point out that it has also been responsible for deporting a large number of criminals.
"I would remind Gov. Brown that he supported Secure Communities as attorney general," said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson. "It is a very effective tool for public safety," he said, adding that it allows him to identify and remove criminal illegal immigrants from the community.
Brown's representative, reached early Friday afternoon, said she had not yet received the letter. As attorney general, Brown had said Secure Communities served "both public safety and the interest of justice."
There is still much confusion over whether states can legally opt out of the program.
Immigration officials now say Secure Communities is not dependent on participation agreements because it relies on information sharing between federal agencies. They point out that all states and counties will be mandated to participate in the program by 2013.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security's office of inspector general said it would launch its investigation of the Secure Communities program in August, two months earlier than expected, according to a letter from the department's acting Inspector General Charles Edwards to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who urged the review.
The congresswoman had asked the inspector general to investigate whether ICE officials lied to local officials about the voluntary nature of the program and whether communities had the ability to drop out of it. The investigation will also evaluate whether Secure Communities succeeds in achieving its goal of targeting dangerous illegal immigrants.
Baca, who has been a vocal proponent of the program since its inception and who recently wrote an op-ed article in The Times in support of the program, told immigrant rights groups that he agreed with their concerns about immigrants who are caught in the program after committing "minor, first-time offenses" and said he was "against any form of deportation for illegal immigrants who have not committed a crime."
Although he supports Secure Communities, he wrote, there is need for improvement in the program.
Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this story.