Federal deportation program under fire in Los Angeles

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Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Isaura Garcia, right, stands with her attorney Jennie Pasquarella of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Civil rights lawyers in Los Angeles on Thursday said federal immigration authorities are snagging innocent crime victims in their drive to increase deportations using the Secure Communities program. They pointed to the case of a domestic violence victim recently arrested by the LAPD.

After more than two years of being beaten by her boyfriend, Isaura Garcia said she finally got up the nerve to call police.

Her attorney said officers ended up arresting Garcia, after finding scratches on her boyfriend. When she fainted, paramedics took her to the hospital.

“A doctor examined her and found that she had bruises on her body, and released with paperwork saying that she is a victim of domestic violence," said Jennie Pasquarella of the American Civil Liberties Union. She said police still decided to take her to Los Angeles County Jail and "because of Secure Communities, her fingerprints identified her as somebody of interest."

Under the federal government’s Secure Communities program, local jails check the immigration status of everyone who is arrested. L.A., Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino counties participate in the program.

While local authorities never charged Garcia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her because she’d been removed from the country as an undocumented immigrant three times in the past.

ACLU executive director Hector Villagra said more than half of people removed under Secure Communities in L.A. are like Isaura – either people with no criminal record or people who have committed minor offenses.

“The federal government has got into the snake oil business," Villagra said. "The federal government is selling us the Secure Communities program as a magic elixir, telling us that it will make our communities safer by targeting the most serious criminals. Nothing could be further from the truth."

In a statement, immigration authorities said the 2-year-old program has led to the removal of 72,000 undocumented immigrants convicted of a crime. A third of those, they said, committed violent offenses.

Some local law enforcement officials refuse to participate.

“We’re calling on these officials to follow the lead of Sheriff Hennessy of San Francisco, who just last week announced that he would not turn over noncriminals and low-level offenders to [immigration enforcement] who are identified through Secure Communities," Pasquarella said. "Chief [Charlie] Beck and Sheriff [Lee] Baca must do the same.”

In the past, LAPD's Beck and L.A. County's Sheriff Baca have said they support the program.

Federal Department of Homeland Security officials want Secure Communities at every local lockup in the country. But they have also said cities and states may not opt out.

“The State of Illinois said this is not in the public interest to continue participating in this program, and [Homeland Security] is challenging that assertion," says Angelica Salas.

Hours after the ACLU publicly raised concerns about Isaura Garcia, immigration officials said they would no longer seek her deportation.

"This action conforms with the policy [Immigration and Customs] is in the process of finalizing that would guide how the agency uses its prosecutorial discretion in removal cases involving the victims and witnesses of crime, including domestic violence," the agency said in a statement.

Civil rights activists said there are many more people like Garcia.

They also argued that Secure Communities hurts law enforcement’s relationship with immigrant communities. They pointed to the words of Garcia, who’d been repeatedly beaten by her boyfriend Ricardo.

“After what happened to her, she will never call the police for help," Diana Rubio said as she translated for Garcia.

"Ricardo could have killed her before she would have called the police. It makes her sad to think of all the women in similar situations who are in danger, who also can’t trust police because of their fear of deportation.”

Secure Communities enjoys broad support among Republican lawmakers.

Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose has called for a review of the Secure Communities program, and whether immigration officials misled Congress when they said it would focus on violent criminals for deportation.

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