ICE Taking Heat About New Finger-Printing Program

By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer

When the Secure Communities program was introduced to Santa Barbara County in January, local federal officials touted it as a streamlined way to target illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, especially violent ones.

But statistics compiled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials show that 58 percent of those who were deported through April 30 had no criminal records. And only 13 percent of the illegal immigrants removed by ICE were convicted of major crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping.

Civil rights groups already wary of the program now contend that its emphasis on “high-risk criminal aliens” is a smokescreen to hide a more sweeping goal: using local jurisdictions to enforce federal immigration law.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the new program has given immigration officials access to the fingerprints of every inmate booked into jail in all 25 U.S. counties along the Mexico border.

Immigration officials point to self-compiled data to underscore the effectiveness of the program.

To date, Secure Communities has identified more than 262,900 illegal immigrants in jails and prisons who have been charged with or convicted of criminal offenses, including more than 39,000 charged with or convicted of violent offenses or major drug crimes.

But ICE officials have not released raw data for the number of non-criminal illegal immigrants who have been deported because of the program.

“(Secure Communities) is doing a better job of breaking up families than making the community safer,” said Bridget Kessler of the Immigration Justice Clinic, which helped obtain the data after filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this year.

Kessler said that the program co-opts local law enforcement into doing immigration enforcement, “thus destroying the relationships among police and the communities they serve.” In Santa Barbara County, the number of non-criminal illegal immigrants deported is above the national average; however, in Travis County, Texas, 82 percent of deportations were of non-criminals.

“This indicates that there may be an issue with racial profiling,” Kessler contended. “The local police may be targeting people on the basis of their race or appearance, and the person is being deported, regardless of whether there was a legal basis for the initial arrest.”

Ray Kovacic, assistant field office director of ICE in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, said the program is removing dangerous “criminal aliens” from the country in a manner that decreases the amount of time individuals spend in ICE custody.

“I don’t believe ICE misrepresented this program,” he said. “It seems like we’re getting bashed for doing a more effective job.” Secure Communities allows immigration officials to identify illegal immigrants through national fingerprint-based software, which checks immigration records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.

Kovacic added that the program has garnered strong support from local law enforcement.

“I can’t understand how groups cannot come out and support a mission that supports protecting the community by removing criminal aliens from the street,” he said.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Sheriff Bill Brown said he had not seen the documents obtained by the civil rights groups. When informed of the data for the county, Brown said he would be “surprised” to learn that the majority of those deported are non-criminals.

“It’s been brought to my attention that there are concerns over people who are non-criminal being scooped up in this process and are being deported,” he added. “I plan to look into those allegations, but it would be inappropriate of me to comment on this until I’ve reviewed it.”

Brown stressed that the Sheriff’s Department “does not act as an agent of the federal government” and has not changed how law enforcement operates.

“We don’t arrest people for being in the country illegally,” he said. “The reason for that is because we work hard to maintain a relationship with the Hispanic community. We do not want them to be afraid to report crimes to us, to report being victims of crimes or being witnesses of crimes. In the interest of community safety, we do not want to be perceived to be deporting someone who hasn’t committed any criminal violations.”

Kovacic said though the program is tailored to target high-level criminals, immigration officials are not going to “look the other way” when they encounter a person here illegally.

“Say we have John Doe who has no prior criminal record, has never been arrested, maybe works hard, maybe doesn’t. He’s a nice guy by definition. His crime is that he crossed into the U.S. illegally,” Kovacic explained. “It’s a federal crime. We enforce that.”

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who spearheaded a lower-tech jail-screening program in 1997, said anyone who enters the country illegally is a criminal.

“They have compounded breaking our immigration laws by breaking criminal laws,” he told the Journal on Monday. “I fully support enforcing our laws. If the (Obama) administration enforced all our immigration laws, including worksite enforcement, illegal immigration would cease to be a major problem.”

Belen Seara, executive director of PUEBLO, a countywide non-profit group that advocates for low-income residents, said she plans on meeting with Brown to discuss the organization’s complaints.

She said concerns have arisen over a conscious misrepresentation of the program, and not because PUEBLO and other groups have misconstrued how it works.

“Brown is interested in making sure that the program fulfills the purpose of getting the serious criminals off the streets,” she said. “We all want to make sure our taxpayer money isn’t being wasted on non-criminals, but rather on those who are killing, robbing or raping.”

As an alternative, PUEBLO and other organizations support a comprehensive immigration reform bill similar to the initiative pushed by former President George W. Bush. That measure offered the estimated 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants in the country a path to citizenship, while tightening the border with Mexico and creating a guest-worker program to help employers fill low-paying jobs.

The bill was rejected by the Senate over concerns from the Republican Party that the plan was tantamount to amnesty. “We work with immigrants who are not opposed to paying penalties, paying back taxes, and taking English classes in order to integrate into the community,” Seara noted.

As for Secure Communities, she said she would hope that if the county finds problems with the program and ICE is unwilling to mend its “bad practices,” the county should look into opting out of the program.

But ICE officials were unable to say for certain whether local jurisdictions can withdraw from the program once they enter into an agreement with the California Department of Justice. In May, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sent a letter to San Francisco County Sheriff Mike Hennessey, who had requested “assistance in opting out of participation” over concerns about the “unintended consequences” of ICE officials having access to “fingerprints collected for non-criminal justice purposes, such as employment applications.”

Brown indicated that in regard to the program, he wanted statewide uniformity.

“This is not simply a local issue,” he wrote. “Many of the people booked in local jails end up in state prison or go on to commit crimes in other counties or states.” [email protected]