Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said she was "frankly disappointed"… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Investigators found no evidence that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials intentionally misled Congress or state and local officials about the controversial program that gives federal immigration authorities access to fingerprints of prisoners in local jails, according to two reports released Friday.
The program, called Secure Communities, began with considerable fanfare in 2008 as a way to find violent criminals who should be deported. Local and state agencies signed agreements with ICE to participate in the program. When deportations soared as a result of ICE finding minor violations, some agencies sought to back out of the agreements, but were told by ICE that they could not.
A report by the acting inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, Charles K. Edwards, said initial "confusion" inside ICE about whether local approval was needed to join the federal effort resulted in a "lack of clarity" in explaining it to state and local officials.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who requested the reports, said she was "frankly disappointed" that the reports failed to answer her questions about whether the program encouraged racial profiling or discouraged immigrants from reporting crimes to police.
"The inspector general does not seem to be taking seriously concerns and misrepresentations already established," said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit.
Edwards' report acknowledged that confusion inside ICE about the fingerprint-sharing program had stoked "opposition, criticism and resistance in some locations."
Secure Communities drew scrutiny after governors in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and several other states complained it had ensnared thousands of minor offenders, including some who had been arrested but not yet tried or convicted, and had deterred some crime victims from coming forward to aid police.
But these issues were not specifically addressed in the two reports.
One of the reports said the program, which began under theGeorge W. Bushadministration in the fall of 2008, had properly identified illegal immigrants with criminal records for deportation. But the numbers grew in the first three years as authorities began to consider 13 "low-priority" crimes, including violating court orders, harboring fugitives and disorderly conduct.
The expanded list of crimes that could trigger a deportation helps explain why the Obama administration is deporting more people with criminal records than ever before. Nearly 217,000 people convicted of felonies or misdemeanors were deported last year, an 89% increase since 2008, according to ICE.
About 2,590 state and local law enforcement agencies, or 81% of jurisdictions, share fingerprints with immigration officials. ICE officials say they plan to link every jurisdiction in the country to its database by the end of 2013.
Critics called for ending the program immediately, however, saying it allowed widespread civil rights abuses.
"The reports ignore the reality that this misguided program has led to unwarranted detention, arrests and deportations of victims, witnesses and other innocent people, including U.S. citizens," said Kate Desormeau, an attorney with the Immigrants' Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.