Critics say immigration program detains less serious offenders (Press Democrat)

Critics say immigration program detains less serious offenders
Published: Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 7:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 7:24 p.m.

The chief goal of the federal Secure Communities program, in place in Sonoma County since March 2010, is to identify, detain and deport dangerous illegal immigrants.

But since the program took effect, critics have said that it actually catches up as many, if not more, people guilty of offenses that most consider minor, such as driving without a license or shoplifting. Such was the case of Jacobo Farias-Chavez of Santa Rosa, who was pulled over for a traffic violation.

Sonoma County advocates for illegal immigrants’ rights are heartened by a steep drop in the number of people handed over to immigration authorities, a drop coinciding with local police agencies’ decisions to accept Mexican consular cards as valid identification.

But they remain concerned that Secure Communities is still snaring many people who are far from the violent felons the program aims to nab.

“I don’t know anyone in my files who had a serious crime in their background,” said Santa Rosa immigration attorney Michelle Crawford.

Farias-Chavez, 32, of Santa Rosa did not have a consular card when Petaluma police pulled him over Sept. 12 for making an illegal turn across a double yellow line. He was booked into the Sonoma County Jail on that charge and also for driving without a license.

Though Farias-Chavez ultimately was not charged in either offense, his identifying information was sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and he was quickly placed into deportation proceedings.

Free on $1,500 bail, the self-employed landscaper, who has three disabled children and, according to court records, no criminal history, said he lives now in a haze of worry.

“I think I’ve been a good member of society,” he said. “I’ve worked, I’ve paid taxes, followed the rules.”

Drawing a line between who should and shouldn’t be automatically put into deportation proceedings is a difficult task, said Terry Tomasini of Sebastopol, a former director of the North Bay Patriots, a group aligned with the tea party political movement.

“If we’ve got people who are ethical, moral people that are actually trying to make a living, they’re not abusing our entitlements and are just trying to better themselves, they certainly are not a practical drag or harm,” he said.

“But the precedent that has been set (by the matricula policy) absolutely opens a floodgate,” he said. “It’s a troubling situation with no easy answer.”

ICE, of course, has the authority to detain and deport anyone who is in the country without permission, whether or not they have a criminal history.

But after border security operations, Secure Communities is the chief channel through which illegal immigrants are sent into deportation proceedings.

And determining how many people caught in a program aimed at violent felons fit that profile — and how many do not — is a preoccupation of critics.

While ICE data shows that far fewer people are being handed over to the agency from Sonoma County — 484 in the past 12 months, compared to 921 in the first year — it is far less clear about who they are.

“I’d like to see a breakdown of the numbers. How many have felony convictions?” said Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney and a vocal Secure Communities opponent.

The Sheriff’s Office has declined numerous requests for specific information about those people it has turned over to ICE, such as the crimes for which they were arrested or how many were known to be gang members.

But according to ICE, of 921 people handed over to it during the program’s first year, the agency designated 658 as “noncriminals” — meaning they were not charged following their arrest or had not been convicted of a local offense.

Since then, getting information about people turned over to the agency has grown harder because ICE has eliminated the “noncriminal” category. It has been replaced with three categories of immigration violations, including for people previously deported or who have over-stayed their visas.

ICE also stopped routinely reporting how many people had been turned over to the agency, as well as information about their criminal histories.

For example, ICE did not provide a breakdown by criminal category of the 484 people handed over by Sonoma County authorities since October 2011.

But records show that of the 1,426 people flagged in that period as possible violators of immigration laws — which made them subject to further investigation to determine whether they should be handed over — 323 were in the most serious Level 1 category of criminal violator.

The “Level 1” designation includes people convicted of major drug offenses and violent crimes such as murder, rape, manslaughter and robbery.

More than two-thirds of the people flagged by ICE at the county jail were Level 2 or 3 offenders, which include people guilty of minor drug and property crimes such as burglary, larceny and fraud, and those convicted of offenses punishable by less than one year in jail.

In all, since March 2010, of 1,078 people deported through Secure Communities in Sonoma County, 237 were in the Level 1 category; 530 were in Level 2 or 3; and 311 were in immigration violation categories.

Guillermo Ortiz fell in Level 2 and also had broken immigration laws by returning to the country illegally after having been deported, a felony.

The 37-year-old Santa Rosa man missed a community service commitment in June because he was in the hospital, according to documents produced by his wife, Olga Jiminez.

Ortiz was on probation following a 2010 conviction for allowing his house to be used by someone else to grow marijuana, court records showed.

He was arrested on Aug. 24 and, in September, deported for the third time.

Now Jiminez, a U.S. citizen, struggles to raise her three children alone.

“The hardest time for me is during the day, when I’m alone,” she said. “My mind starts thinking and thinking … I know that he made a mistake, I know that he’s not perfect. But I think that the judge should have given him a chance.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212.

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