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'Secure Communities' Raises Questions

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Federal program targets undocumented criminals; some say it harms local policing

While Bay Area cities and immigration activists focused this spring on Arizona’s controversial law that criminalizes the undocumented, little attention has been paid to a Department of Homeland Security program that is detaining and in some cases deporting immigrants for crimes that could be as minor as traffic stops.

Called Secure Communities, the program was launched nationally in October 2008. It is not mandatory for states to participate, but in those jurisdictions that do, law enforcement agencies scan the fingerprints of suspects through databases maintained by the FBI and homeland security. The search checks for criminal background and immigration status, and if there is a match with someone with a criminal record and illegal immigration status, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is notified. ICE reviews cases and decides whether to place a hold on suspects and take them into custody.

Secure Communities arrived in California in May 2009 in communities nearest to the Mexican border and way north, arriving in the Bay Area this spring. In the whole state, 28 jurisdictions—including counties, parishes and other districts—participate in the program. San Francisco, Contra Costa and Alameda are among them. It has been embraced by some in law enforcement and criticized by others as bad policing.

Sheriff Curtis Hill, president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, says the program strengthens public safety in his community.

"We're talking about criminal street gang type folks," said Hill, who is also sheriff of San Benito County. "If I can utilize federal resources to get these folks back in prison, that is a win for the people who would have been victims otherwise.

As of July 13, 22,604 people in California have been detained and 10,948 of those deported by ICE. They represent about half of the 42,503 people detained and nearly one-third of the 34,636 people deported across the United States, according to ICE data.

In San Francisco, where the program debuted June 8, 19 people have been detained and one person deported. In Contra Costa and Alameda counties, which both began the program in April, 275 and 140 people have been detained respectively, and 64 people from each county have been deported as a result of Secure Communities.

But exactly what kinds of criminals are being detained in city jails and turned over to ICE is difficult to ascertain. ICE says information regarding the specific crimes of individuals is not publicly available.

ICE officials say the program focuses on detaining and deporting the most dangerous criminal aliens who have committed Level 1 crimes, such as sexual assault, murder and drug trafficking, as defined by the FBI. But this category has a wide-range of sub-categories of less severe crimes, such as "aggravated felony," which may include misdemeanors.

"The definition has sort of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality to it," said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and an immigration law expert. He said that shoplifting committed by actress Winona Ryder, for example, is technically an aggravated felony, which would put her at risk of deportation were she undocumented. According to ICE data, 4,128 people have been deported from California as Level 1 criminals since May 2009.

Virginia Kice, Western Regional Communications Director for ICE, said ICE considers factors such as a criminal record and whether an individual has been previously deported when deciding to recommend deportation. An immigration judge, not ICE, decides on deportation at the end of the process. "We look at the totality of these cases," Kice said.

Adding complexity to Secure Communities assessments of severe crime, Level 2 and 3 offenders--whose crimes can range from prostitution to traffic violations -- are also being deported. Among those deported from California, 5,091 were Level 2 offenders and 1,429 were Level 3 offenders.

In contrast to Sheriff Hill's positive view of the program, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey calls it an "overly broad approach."

Before San Francisco began participating in Secure Communities, law enforcement agents sent illegal immigrants who were felons to ICE and dealt with lesser offenders on their own.

"Personally, I don't wish to see people drug into the ICE net who are not causing serious problems in our community," Hill said.

Although federal funding goes to participating jurisdictions for the fingerprinting and related costs, there is no funding for the added burden on county jails. When ICE places a hold on suspects, they remain in jail for up to 48 hours until ICE takes them into custody. County jail costs are about $120 per person per day, according to Hennessey.

"The financial costs are, we believe, really significant," said Julia Mass, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which opposes Secure Communities.

Mass says the program poses a "real diversion of those scarce public resources" that local law enforcements need to perform their daily duties.

But ICE officials say ICE can shuffle prisoners through its network of over 30,000 beds across the country so as to mitigate overpopulation in county jails if necessary.

Formal assessments of Secure Communities in Bay Area cities are on their way. San Francisco will begin auditing detainee statistics in its jurisdiction every two months. The Warren Institute at UC Berkeley’s law school has begun a study of the program’s impact on policing practices.

UC Davis’ Johnson thinks impacts on policing will not be positive, despite ICE’s intentions, by eroding trust between immigrants and law enforcement. He anticipates an uptick in people resisting arrest.

"It's going to make every stop a momentous occasion," he said.

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