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Federal deportation law has downsides, local sheriffs say

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A new report compiles testimony from law enforcement officials attacking a federal policy that directs local authorities to detain for deportation all illegal immigrants they arrest.

The Secure Communities program, run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, collects fingerprint data from local precincts and cross-checks it with federal immigration records.

ICE officials touted the program as a way to deport dangerous criminals. However, using the federal government’s statistics, the report [PDF] – produced by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Los Angeles in collaboration with more than a dozen other groups across the country – concludes the majority of people being detained under the program are picked up for minor offenses, such as traffic fines.

“The perspective that I and others are trying to express is that (the program) should be used to deport serious and dangerous felons who are here illegally, and not people who are driving without a license or drinking a beer on someone's front steps,” said Mike Hennessey, sheriff of San Francisco. “When local law enforcement is involved in enforcing immigration laws, it harms the trust with regard to the local community.”

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Hennessey and others quoted in the report fear members of the community are less likely to come forward to report crimes because they are afraid they could be deported. The report also documents concerns that the Secure Communities program contributes to racial profiling, strains local resources and contributes to jail overcrowding.

When asked to respond to criticism of the program, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice referred California Watch to a press release. According to the statement, the program reduces the risk of racial profiling by checking the fingerprints of everyone arrested, regardless of suspected immigration status. The statement also states that the “vast majority of jurisdictions do not arrest victims or witnesses at the scene of a domestic altercation,” and guidelines have been provided to “ensure appropriate discretion is exercised.”

Initially, state officials were under the impression that the Secure Communities program was voluntary. But after several states – including California, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts – expressed concern, immigration officials said there was no opt-out process.

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced the program will be mandatory by 2013 – the legality of which is being challenged in court by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

"There is ample evidence that ICE and DHS have gone out of their way to mislead the public about Secure Communities," U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote, the Courthouse News Services reported.

Since 2009, ICE reports it has taken custody of almost 48,000 “convicted criminal aliens” in California as a result of the program. Of those, 23,712 were deported, 10,000 of whom were convicted of “serious or violent criminal offenses." The report condemns those statistics, arguing that the percentage of violent criminals deported does not justify the program:

Suffolk County in Massachusetts and Miami-Dade County in Florida show noncriminal deportation rates of over 50 percent – a significant departure from the national average of 29.9 percent. This data demonstrates that the Secure Communities initiative is not 'prioritizing criminal aliens for enforcement action based on their threat to public safety' but rather deporting individuals for minor offenses and even drawing in U.S. citizens for enforcement actions – further evidence that this ICE initiative is encouraging racial profiling.

Other law enforcement officials, such as Sheriff Mark Curran of Lake County, Ill., do not condemn the program as harshly but still believe it’s misguided.

“I view Secure Communities as a distraction. ICE began operating this program in my county in April 2010. But since then, the program has diverted my department from more serious law enforcement responsibilities. More than half the people ICE has arrested from Lake County under this program have no criminal convictions – people who could otherwise go free.”

Local police officials can choose not to submit fingerprint data, but that means losing access to valuable state and federal databases. Officials also can refuse to detain individuals. San Francisco's Hennessey is the only law enforcement official in the country currently pursuing that route.    

“The federal law says you’re ‘requested’ to detain them for up to 48 hours while ICE decides whether they want to come and get them,” he said. “I’m not in full compliance with what ICE wants. But I think I’m in compliance with the law.”

More than 750 jurisdictions in 34 states joined the program, The New York Times reported, leading to a significant uptick in deportations over the last year.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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