Illegal Immigration: Santa Clara County Wades into Debate on Fingerprinting Program (Mercury News)

Illegal immigration: Santa Clara County board wades into debate on federal fingerprinting program

By Tracy Seipel
[email protected]
Posted: 08/10/2010 07:22:23 PM PDT
Updated: 08/10/2010 10:22:58 PM PDT

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday waded into a growing debate about a federal program that seeks to enlist local law enforcement in the war on illegal immigration.

With about a dozen activists pleading for the county to opt out of the Secure Communities program, the board voted unanimously to ask the county counsel’s office if the county is obliged to participate.

The program, which launched last year and is being phased in across Northern California this summer, gives federal officials access to the fingerprints of people arrested locally.

Federal officials reported Monday that 47,000 immigrants — three-fourths of whom had criminal records — have been deported since Homeland Security began sifting through fingerprints from local jails.

Critics say the program focuses too much on low-level criminals and people who simply failed to show up for deportation hearings. They also allege the program does not protect against racial profiling and makes people fearful of reporting crimes.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the obligations and impacts on us,” said Supervisor George Shirakawa, who drafted a memo seeking guidance on whether the program “is consistent with (the) county’s priorities.”

The answers — and any options — are expected to be delivered to the board’s Public Safety and Justice Committee on Sept. 1. The board could hand down a decision later that month.

Other Bay Area counties
are struggling with the issue, too. Santa Cruz County was scheduled to adopt the program Tuesday. ´╗┐San Mateo County officials already have signed up, saying they had no choice.

And when San Francisco’s sheriff asked the state Attorney General’s Office to let that city and county opt out of the program, Attorney General Jerry Brown said no.

“The Secure Communities program is up and running in 169 counties in 20 states,” Brown wrote in May. “This program serves both public safety and the interest of justice.”

A spokeswoman for Brown on Tuesday said that while his office would review any similar request Santa Clara County might make, “As far as we know, no county in America has opted out of the program.”

Nevertheless, activists for the county’s immigrant communities implored supervisors not to take part in the program.

“We should continue to be a country that cherishes and accepts immigrants,” said Samina Sundas, speaking on behalf of the group American Muslim Voice.

Shirakawa’s office said Tuesday that more than 600,000 immigrants live in Santa Clara County, giving it the state’s highest percentage of foreign-born residents.

While the county so far has resisted any formal commitment to the program, it already plays a role in it. That’s because when someone is arrested and taken to the county jail, his or her fingerprints are sent to an identification system that is ultimately downloaded to the California Department of Justice. That state agency, in turn, has an agreement with the federal government to share the information.

“We have attempted not to cooperate or be involved in this issue,” said Gary Graves, the county’s chief operating officer. “We have not agreed to opt in or out.”

Also Tuesday, the board unanimously voted to explore an ordinance that would require pit bull-type dogs in unincorporated areas of the county be spayed or neutered. The proposal, by Supervisor Ken Yeager, comes after a 2-year-old boy was fatally mauled last month by three pit bulls in the East Bay.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Tracy Seipel at 408 275-0140.