Jail screening program under fire (North County Times)

REGION: Jail screening program under fire
Lawmaker seeks to make immigration checks optional

By EDWARD SIFUENTES – [email protected] North County Times – The Californian | Posted: Saturday, April 16, 2011 7:13 pm

Under a federal program called Secure Communities, anyone booked into county jails in California is automatically screened for immigration violations. A bill introduced earlier this month in the Legislature would allow counties to opt out of the system.

The program has come under fire from immigrant-rights advocates and some law enforcement officials, who say it has become a dragnet that is catching illegal immigrants who have never been convicted of a crime.

Supporters say the program is a vital tool in the fight against crime and a prudent system to deport illegal immigrants.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who wrote the proposed opt-out legislation, Assembly Bill 1081, said the program needs to be more flexible. Federal officials say participation is not optional.

San Diego County was one of the first counties in the nation to implement the program, starting in May 2009. The Sheriff’s Department allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to check all suspects booked into its facilities for immigration violations and legal status.

The Secure Communities program links local jails to federal databases. Fingerprints taken from people booked into jail are matched against those federal bases to identify people who may be in the country illegally.

“Secure Communities allows us to leverage technology to screen the intake of all inmates at all jails across the state and to prioritize, apprehend and deport the most egregious offenders,” said Robert Culley, ICE’s acting field officer director in San Diego.

Enforcing the law

Since the program began in the county up to February 2011, ICE agents have submitted about 226,000 sets of fingerprints, resulting in 7,458 people being deported, according to data released by the Department of Homeland Security.

Of those who were deported from the county, 1,673 people, about 22 percent, had no criminal convictions and 2,845, or 38 percent, had committed lower-level crimes, such as driving without a license.

Nationally, 1 in 4 people deported under the Secure Communities program has not been convicted of a crime, according to data obtained by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Immigration Justice Clinic.

The groups obtained the data as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Chris Newman, legal affairs director with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the program was repeatedly billed by federal officials as targeting the most hardened, violent criminals.

Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE in San Diego, said that while the program focuses on removing criminal illegal immigrants, the department is responsible for deporting any illegal immigrants it finds.

Anti-illegal immigration groups say the program is working.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that favors strict immigration enforcement measures, said there is nothing wrong with deporting illegal immigrants.

“This idea that you have to have committed another crime other than being here illegally doesn’t square with what the law says,” Mehlman said.

How the program works

On Wednesday, Vista sheriff’s deputies arrested a Mexican man on charges of possession of a controlled substance. ICE officials asked that the man not be identified for privacy reasons.

At the Vista jail, the man was about to be released on bail but was taken to a work station where ICE agents asked him some questions to determine his identity. He told the agents he was a legal resident and that he worked taking care of horses.

The substance, he said, was a horse tranquilizer.

An agent took the man’s fingerprints and asked him questions, such as when he became a legal resident, whether he was married and whether he had children. The agent fed the information into a federal database.

Within minutes, the agent learned the man previously had been deported four times and that he had several aliases. ICE agents placed an immigration “hold” on him, which means that once he faces the drug possession charge, he will be returned to immigration authorities for deportation procedures.

Opting out

The program, which started with 14 jurisdictions in 2008, has grown to more than 1,000, including all counties in California. The Department of Homeland Security is on track to expand the program to every law enforcement jurisdiction in the nation by 2013.

Newman said that 25 percent of all people being deported have no criminal convictions is evidence the program is being misused by some law enforcement agencies.

In the politically charged debate over immigration, some agencies may be using the program to look tough on illegal immigrants, Newman said.

On the other hand, it forces some agencies to be tougher on illegal immigrants than they otherwise would be.

Last year, San Francisco’s sheriff asked the federal government for permission to opt out of the program, arguing it was overly broad. Sheriff Michael Hennessey said the program conflicts with a San Francisco policy that requires law enforcement to report only those born outside the U.S. who are booked for felonies. Federal officials denied the sheriff’s request.

Ammiano’s bill not only would allow counties such as San Francisco to opt out of Secure Communities, it would require local governments that participate to adopt measures aimed at preventing racial profiling and protecting crime victims from deportation.

Unfounded fears

Immigration officials say concerns about potential abuses are unfounded. They say Secure Communities eliminates another frequent criticism: that Latinos are subjected to immigration scrutiny more often than people of other backgrounds.

Under the program, everyone booked into jails is checked.

Opponents contend that racial profiling takes place before immigrants get to the jails by cops on the street, who decide who to arrest. The large number of people deported without a criminal background is evidence that police may be taking immigrants to jails without any basis, they say.

“Those numbers raise questions about how Secure Communities may allow local police to cover up profiling and circumvent due process,” said Bridget Kessler, a spokeswoman for the Immigration Justice Clinic, an immigrant rights organization based at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City.

Mehlman disagreed.

“It’s just further evidence that they don’t want immigration laws enforced,” he said.

Call staff writer Edward Sifuentes at 760-740-3511.