Reporting from Sacramento -- California lawmakers have taken steps to opt out of a controversial federal immigration enforcement program, joining a growing number of states that say it harms public safety and undermines local law enforcement.
Under the Secure Communities program, fingerprints of all arrestees booked into local jails and cross-checked with the FBI's criminal database are forwarded to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for screening. Officials said the system, launched in 2008, is intended to identify and deport illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping.
Some state lawmakers say the reality has been far different. Citing ICE data, Democrats say that many of those ensnared in the program have never been convicted of crimes or are low-level offenders. The result, they say, has been a chilling effect on immigrant crime victims and witnesses, who stay silent for fear of deportation.
Republicans are opposed to opting out, saying it would undermine federal law.
From the program's inception through March of this year, 55% of those flagged for deportation nationwide had committed misdemeanors and infractions or were arrested but not convicted of crimes, ICE data show. About 30% of those flagged for deportation had been convicted of serious crimes.
ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley defended the program, saying that it had netted 78,000 "deportable aliens" in California, more than 48% of whom had previous felony convictions or at least three misdemeanors. She said the agency is developing a policy to protect crime victims and witnesses.
In a heated debate on the state Assembly floor Thursday, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) called Secure Communities a "farce" as he lobbied his colleagues to support legislation that would require California's Department of Justice to renegotiate its agreement with the federal government.
The bill would allow counties to opt out of the federal program and ensure that the participants enact protective measures for victims of domestic violence and juveniles. And it would require those counties to develop safeguards against racial profiling and share only the fingerprints of convicted felons.
"There is no shame in protecting people who are vulnerable," Ammiano said.
Republicans argue that allowing some counties to opt out of the program would give violent criminals free rein across the state.
"People will go where they will not get caught," said Assemblyman Stephen Knight (R-Palmdale).
The bill passed the Assembly on a party-line vote, 47 to 26, and moves to the Senate.
Gov. Jerry Brown declined to comment on the legislation. But he supported Secure Communities when he was California's attorney general, a fact that Republicans used in their arguments Thursday. Last year, then-Atty. Gen. Brown denied a request by San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey to opt out of the program.
In a letter to Hennessey, Brown said Secure Communities "serves both public safety and the interest of justice."
"This is not simply a local issue," he said. "Many of the people booked in local jails end up in state prison or go on to commit crimes in other counties or states."
Ammiano and others said Brown and the state were misled by federal officials. They cited a planned investigation of Secure Communities by the Department of Homeland Security's office of the inspector general.
Among other issues, the review will examine how federal officials portrayed the program to states and counties, which say they were initially told they could opt out but were later informed that participation has always been mandatory.
Times staff writer Lee Romney in San Francisco contributed to this report.