Officials in California and beyond have begun to rebel against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security program that mandates jailhouse immigration fingerprint checks.
All 58 of the state’s counties are operating as part the “Secure Communities” program, which uses biometric data from arrestees to search for illegal immigrants. As of February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had taken custody of nearly 72,000 people the past two years suspected of being in the country without permission from California county jails, federal data shows.
ICE officials contend that local agencies are required to participate in Secure Communities. Specifically, city and county law enforcement officials must send arrestees’ fingerprints electronically to federal immigration agents, then hold selected individuals until ICE can pick them up.
That premise, however, is being challenged.
San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey has announced that, come June 1, his jail will stop holding suspected illegal immigrants arrested for low-level offenses. A city ordinance designates San Francisco a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants.
“I’m just doing our best to enforce local law,” Hennessey told the San Francisco Examiner last week. “That’s my job.”
The state of Illinois is attempting to remove itself entirely from the immigration checks.
A similar effort is under way in California in the form of AB 1081. The legislation, now awaiting a hearing before the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, would invalidate the state’s agreement with ICE. Each county would be free to negotiate its own terms for participating in federal immigration checks.
The key question for local jails is, does the federal government have the authority to make Secure Communities mandatory?
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, said that U.S. Code Title 8, Section 1722 backs up the agency’s contention.
A quick reading of the statute by California Watch found that the law requires federal law enforcement to connect their criminal and immigration records databases.
It does not appear to require local police to join in the information sharing.
Kice said she did not know which section of the statute specifically resolves this question. Further, she added that Secure Communities does not require local jails to do anything outside of their typical duties.
“They’re fingerprinting people as part of their normal course of business,” Kice said.
Joining the growing line of Secure Communities critics, on Thursday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked President Obama to freeze the program.
The federal lawmakers expressed concern that the program is not targeting the right people. ICE touts Secure Communities as a tool that locates and removes dangerous criminal aliens.
In many jurisdictions, a significant number of illegal immigrants deported had no criminal history.
“Evidence reveals not only a striking dissonance between the program’s stated purpose of removing dangerous criminals and its actual effect; it also suggests that (Secure Communities) may endanger the public, particularly among communities of color,” the caucus’ letter states, according to the Los Angeles Times. Opponents of local immigration enforcement argue that immigrant communities, fearing deportation, are less likely to contact police when danger arises.
In Illinois, ICE data shows that 46 percent of those booked into federal custody through Secure Communities had never been convicted of a crime.
The numbers are less alarming across much of California.
Out of the 12 counties that identified the largest number of illegal immigrants via jail fingerprints, seven snagged more “level one” offenders than noncriminals. Level one criminals have been convicted of serious or violent offenses.
However, five of the counties (most notably Riverside and Contra Costa) booked a higher percentage of “noncriminal” aliens.
(Data in the above table is from an ICE report produced in March with Secure Communities numbers cumulative from the past two years.)