How a once-'voluntary' immigrant-ID program evolved

How a once-‘voluntary’ immigrant-ID program evolved

Thursday, February 17, 2011 12:00 am

WASHINGTON – A voluntary program to run all criminal suspects’ fingerprints through an immigration database was voluntary only until cities refused to participate, recently released documents show.

The Obama administration then tightened the rules so that cities had no choice but to have the fingerprints checked.

Thousands of documents made public by the Homeland Security Department provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the administration scrambled to quiet the criticism and negative publicity surrounding the immigration-enforcement program known as Secure Communities.

The administration rewrote the program’s participation rules, the documents show, considered withholding federal funding and FBI information from resisters, and eventually dug up case law to justify requiring cooperation.

Throughout the turmoil, according to the documents, top officials knew they would get local resistance and were advised in late 2009 that the fingerprints could be checked against the immigration database without local buy-in.

“The SC (Secure Communities) initiative will remain voluntary at the state and local level. … Until such time as localities begin to push back on participation, we will continue with this current line of thinking,” says an e-mail written by Randi Greenberg, the communications and outreach chief of the program. It was sent to several people whose names DHS blacked out before releasing the documents.

The pushback came.

Washington, D.C.; Cook County, Ill.; Santa Clara, Calif.; Arlington, Va.; San Francisco; Philadelphia; and the states of Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado either raised questions or tried to avoid participating, according to the documents. The communities are only a small percentage of more than 1,000 that willingly became part of the program or didn’t oppose the state signing them up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

By fall of last year, ICE decided local officials could not stop immigration officials from culling the fingerprints. The locals could only refuse to receive the information from the federal government on the immigration status of people they were holding in their jails. Local officials, however, still had to hold noncitizens for ICE if asked.

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Latino immigrant advocacy group in Somer-ville, Mass., said the documents showed federal officials are giving local officials “mixed messages” and only added to the “confusion and fear” among various immigrant communities.

Some local law enforcement agencies generally resist the job of policing immigration. Politically, they feel it’s a federal responsibility. Practically, they want residents to feel free to report crimes and act as witnesses without fear of being caught as illegal immigrants.

The documents were released as a result of a Freedom of Information lawsuit. The Associated Press obtained the documents from Homeland Security after a New York federal district court judge overseeing the lawsuit ordered them made public.