California could become the fourth state to remove itself from a controversial federal immigration fingerprint check program, following recent moves by the governors of Massachusetts, New York and Illinois.
The state Senate’s Public Safety Committee has scheduled a hearing next week to consider AB 1081.
The measure would remove California’s 58 counties from the Secure Communities program, which uses biometric data from arrestees in local jails to search for illegal immigrants. Each county would then be free to negotiate its own terms for participating in federal immigration checks.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials contend that local agencies are required to participate in Secure Communities. City and county law enforcement officials send arrestees’ fingerprints electronically to federal immigration agents, then hold identified illegal immigrants until ICE can pick them up.
ICE had taken custody of nearly 72,000 people from California county jails in the past two years, through February. Federal data shows that a third of those illegal immigrants previously had been convicted of a serious offense. However, 28 percent of those booked through Secure Communities had no prior criminal record.
Opponents of the fingerprint program argue that too many of those snared are non-criminals. Among them are “persons stopped for minor traffic offenses, and even U.S. citizens have been caught up in its net and have wrongly been detained at local expense,” Julia Mass, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said in a written statement.
Such arguments last week persuaded Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to block his state’s participation in Secure Communities, which his counterparts in Illinois and New York did earlier.
In a letter (posted by The Huffington Post) to federal officials, Patrick wrote:
ICE has sent conflicting messages about the implementation of the Secure Communities program, as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has publicly acknowledged. The DHS Office of Inspector General has also committed to conduct a review of the program to ‘determine the extent to which ICE uses the program to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens from the United States.’ We are reluctant to participate if the program is mandatory and unwilling to participate if it is voluntary.
In April, California Attorney General Kamala Harris began her own examination of how Secure Communities has operated in the Golden State. That effort is still under way, Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said Monday.
Most California counties have willingly joined in the immigration fingerprint scans. Through individual agreements with ICE, they could continue to check for illegal immigrants in their jails, even if AB 1081 becomes law.
Before that, the Senate must decide whether to pass the measure and Gov. Jerry Brown whether to sign it.
Last year, as state attorney general, Brown blocked the San Francisco County sheriff from opting out of the immigration program. He argued at the time that Secure Communities is not voluntary, a position espoused by ICE officials as well.