Civil rights activists: Secure Communities deportation program wrongfully detaining US citizens

Antonio Montejano, 40, speaks to reporters at the ACLU of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles.
Antonio Montejano, 40, speaks to reporters at the ACLU of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles.
Corey Moore/KPCC

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Civil rights activists claim that law enforcement wrongfully detains ever more U.S. citizens under the federal deportation program Secure Communities. They contend that it’s increasingly happening throughout the country.

At the American Civil Liberties Union in downtown Los Angeles, 40-year-old Antonio Montejano trembled as he spoke to reporters. He said that last month he forgot to pay for a $10 bottle of perfume and candy for his kids when he visited a department store. Prosecutors charged him with shoplifting.

But after a judge released him, Montejano says L.A. County officials locked him up for two days.

“When I arrived at the Los Angeles County jail and the officer asked me where I was born and if I was a citizen, I said ‘I was born in Los Angeles and I was an American citizen.’ They didn’t believe me,” Montejano said.

The ACLU of Southern California says other similar incidents have occurred in L.A. County during the last month. Its lawyers maintain that 5 percent of people Secure Communities has identified across the country were born in America.

Executive director Hector Villagra said his organization and others have sent letters to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the L.A. City Council. They’re pushing officials to enact safeguards that protect people Villagra maintains are innocent.

“These holds from immigration are voluntary," Villagra said. "They have the power to decide whether they are going to honor them or not. They can decide, even though this hold has come, that they are going to release somebody.”

Civil rights groups have enlisted the support of Congresswoman Judy Chu, whose district stretches from East L.A. to Covina, in their efforts to eliminate the program.

In response, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said that Secure Communities is valid, and that it also supports improvements that help to ensure the federal program protects innocent people from deportation.