Meant to Ease Fears of Deportation Program, Federal Hearings Draw Anger
By JULIA PRESTON and SARAH WHEATON
Published: August 25, 2011
A task force set up by the Obama administration to ease political tensions over a deportation program has held the last of four public hearings, which instead served largely to galvanize vocal protests against the policy.
Immigrant, labor and church groups walked out halfway through the session Wednesday in Arlington, Va., banging drums and denouncing the hearing as a “sham” intended to gloss over deep problems with the program, known as Secure Communities.
Immigrant and Latino groups also marched out of hearings this month in Los Angeles and Chicago, calling for a halt to the program. In Chicago, six illegal immigrants, all students, were arrested after briefly stopping traffic outside the hearing. The students were later released. The first hearing, in Dallas, drew heated debate but less militant protests.
With a series of initiatives since June, the Obama administration has sought to tighten the focus of its deportation strategy on illegal immigrants who also have been convicted of crimes, especially serious violent and drug offenses. Officials say the rapid expansion of Secure Communities to cover the whole country by 2013 is part of that plan.
At the same time, senior administration officials announced measures last week to cancel deportation proceedings against many noncitizens who are charged with immigration violations (which generally are civil offenses), but who had not committed crimes.
A 21-member Secure Communities task force was established in June by John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency running the program, in response to resistance from states and cities. Mr. Morton assigned the group to examine narrow issues concerning the program’s impact that had drawn complaints from immigrant leaders.
But the task force soon decided to hold hearings, concluding they needed to hear directly about the groundswell of discontent stirred by the program. The task force includes local law enforcement officers, immigration lawyers and representatives of immigration agents’ unions.
In a letter Thursday, more than 160 immigrant rights organizations said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was a “rogue agency,” and they called on the members of the task force to resign.
Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of everyone booked into jail are checked against the F.B.I.’s criminal databases — long a routine police practice — and also against Department of Homeland Security databases, which record immigration violations.
“This program at its heart is about serious offenders,” Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum and the task force’s chairman, said Thursday. “I don’t think there is any question that a number of people being caught up in the system don’t fit the criteria of serious offender.”
He said the hearings had revealed many episodes when detention of immigrants who were not dangerous criminals had led to mistrust of the local police, even though immigration enforcement is handled by federal authorities.
Mr. Wexler said the hearings had shown that “every time someone who is not considered a serious offender is picked up and put into deportation proceedings, it undermines the credibility of the program.”
Most people who spoke at the hearings opposed the program, Mr. Wexler said, but many local law enforcement and government officials had expressed support. The task force will issue a final report in September.
In Arlington, about 150 protesters marched to the hearing on the campus of George Mason University, chanting, “Hey, Obama, don’t deport my mama.”
During the hearing, Maria Bolaños, 28, an immigrant from El Salvador, approached an immigration official sitting in the audience to confront him directly. She said she had been detained after calling the police following a fight with her partner. She has been charged with illegal sale of phone cards, she said, a charge she denied.
“I wouldn’t call the police again, and I know many people that wouldn’t do the same,” said Ms. Bolaños, who spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.
Paul Showalter, 51, an American who spoke in favor of the program, said a young illegal immigrant had been murdered in his Arlington neighborhood by another immigrant. “So I, as a taxpayer in the State of Virginia, get to pay to house that individual for 20 years to life,” said Mr. Showalter. “One young man is dead, another is behind bars, because no one checked.”
A senior official from the immigration agency at the hearing said they had been surprised by the strong criticism. “In spite of what we’ve been trying to do to get the word out about what Secure Communities is, we clearly are not making ourselves clear,” said Gary Mead, a top official in charge of deportations. He said that the local police generally avoid arresting victims or witnesses of crimes.
“If you don’t get arrested, you don’t get your fingerprints submitted to the F.B.I., you will never become a subject of Secure Communities,” Mr. Mead said.