In just two years, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has installed the federal immigration database in all of California’s 58 counties.
The expansion hasn’t been voluntary.
Most county law enforcement agencies began scanning suspects’ fingerprints to check their legal status under the “Secure Communities” program without complaint. But officials in San Francisco attempted to opt out, only to be blocked by the state Attorney General’s Office last year.
AB 1081 would dramatically change the dynamics that have pushed the biometrics database into nearly every California jail.
The legislation – sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco – would remove all counties from the federal immigration effort, at least temporarily. Officials in each county would have to approve a new resolution to rejoin Secure Communities. These revised agreements would have to protect illegal immigrants who are domestic violence victims and protect against racial profiling.
One of Ammiano’s chief complaints about Secure Communities’ operation in California is that each county’s written agreement is identical, and does not address local concerns.
“Obviously with the boiler plate kind of (agreements) we’re not really allowing people, if they do opt in, to tailor it to that community,” Ammiano said.
Another condition the legislation would require is creation of a complaint system “that allows for expedited review of claims” made by those facing removal as a result of Secure Communities.
The program is being examined by another branch of the state's government as well.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office is beginning a broad examination of how Secure Communities operates in the state, said Terri Carbaugh, the attorney general's chief of staff. The office is corresponding with ICE to collect relevant data and intends to soon organize meetings with law enforcement and civil rights leaders.
"We will take a very serious look at all the aspects of this program," Carbaugh said.
At the heart of Secure Communities is a database that allows local police to check inmates’ legal status by running their fingerprints. When the system makes a match, officers learn a suspect’s entire documented immigration history. They also learn whether ICE wants to place a “hold” on the suspect, which requires the police agency to detain the individual until immigration agents can take custody.
To supporters of increased local immigration enforcement, the program is nothing more than a database at the jails, and does not encourage profiling.
Though still new, Secure Communities helped catch many thousands of illegal immigrants across California.
Since 2009, local law enforcement in California has turned over 71,918 illegal immigrants to ICE through the program, according to federal data. Of those, 35,643 were removed from the United States.
A majority of the illegal immigrants nabbed under Secure Communities were previously convicted of some crime. However, a sizable minority (28 percent) were labeled as “non-criminals” who had no criminal record, the ICE data shows.
In February, nationwide the program removed 2,166 non-criminals. That was significantly more than the number of “level one,” or most serious criminals, that were removed during the month: 1,367
Perhaps most troubling about the non-criminal illegal immigrants in the system is that the public is often stymied when trying to learn more about these arrests.
As the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported this week:
The Press Democrat has submitted formal public records requests to the Sheriff’s Office and ICE seeking specific arrest information about all the inmates released to ICE under Secure Communities. But the Sheriff’s Office has denied these requests. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are preparing to respond to a similar request.
In rejecting the public records request, the Sheriff’s Office cites a law that began as an emergency provision approved by the U.S. Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that officials said was meant to protect investigations into terrorist threats.
County jail officials have also declined requests for nonpersonal, general arrest information related to illegal immigrants tagged by Secure Communities. Such information could help answer why hundreds of ‘non-criminal’ illegal immigrants are ending up in jail.