The federal Secure Communities program to detain and deport illegal immigrants with criminal records in concert with local law enforcement operates in a climate of confusion about participation and the process for opting out, according to some law enforcement officials and immigrant advocates.
During a telephone press briefing yesterday, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey said that he had been trying to remove his county from the program by petitioning state Attorney General Jerry Brown, to no avail.
"As you know, I sought to opt out, in writing, to both the California Department of Justice and Secure Communities," Hennessey said he wrote to Brown. "I was told at the time ... that there was no provision for a local jurisdiction to opt out."
Hennessey has spoken out against the initiative in the past, saying it violates the city's status as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, in which only undocumented felons are turned over to ICE.
Under Secure Communities, which was initiated in 2008, local police and sheriff’s departments scan the fingerprints of all suspects arrested and submit them to a database of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of Homeland Security.
During the teleconference, Santa Clara Supervisor George Shirakawa questioned whether ICE can still obtain data from local law enforcement.
"Even though they'll accept our opt-out, will they continue to gather that data?" he asked.
In jurisdictions that opt out, those arrested would still be fingerprinted if suspects do not have identification or after they are taken to jail. Fingerprints obtained at the jail could be sent to the same ICE database, in which case the only difference for those arrested would be when their fingerprints were cross-checked-- not if.
According to July 13 data, 10,948 aliens have been deported from California as a result of the initiative., Of those, 6,520 were guilty of less-serious crimes, such as minor drug offenses and misdemeanors, while the rest were convicted of the highest level of crimes, such as homicide.
Hennessey and some local police agencies say Secure Communities actually detains more low-level offenders rather than dangerous felons, whom the program is meant to target. Those wishing to opt out have complained that ICE has portrayed the program as mandatory and glossed over the opt-out process. In response to this and other criticisms, such as claims that the initiative promotes racial profiling, ICE released a document last month titled "Setting the Record Straight."
The document states that jurisdictions wishing to delay participation in the program must send written notification to their state and ICE, after which a meeting between the three entities will take place to determine whether the jurisdiction can delay or abstain from participating in the program.
But according to civil rights and immigrant advocates, opting out of Secure Communities is a vague process.
"ICE has erroneously told counties ... that they cannot opt out," said Sarahi Uribe, of the immigrant advocacy group Uncover The Truth Campaign. "We demand a clear protocol to be included in every Secure Communities contract."
So far, only Washington, D.C., has successfully opted out of the program. And not all active districts are trying to opt out-- San Benito County Sheriff Curtis Hill called the initiative a "worthwhile project" that takes dangerous criminals off the streets.