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Secure Communities: Controversy rages over how deportation program affects public safety

ICE director John Morton
ICE director John Morton
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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Last week, New York joined Illinois by announcing it has pulled out of the immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities.

In California, the state legislature is considering whether to let counties to do the same.

Secure Communities was supposed to sweep up criminal illegal immigrants, not stir up controversy. In the first of three-part series, we examine the program’s history and mechanics.

When Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, they complained loudly about workplace raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey at a 2008 hearing described the emotional impact of raids on an 11-year-old from Petaluma who complained of chronic stomach cramps. Woolsey said after many weeks, "the teacher learned that the real reason Anna did not want to go to school was because she was afraid if she went to school, her parents would be taken away in one of the ICE raids while she was gone."

John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says ICE got the message. Instead of sweeping up undocumented workers, it shifted its focus to undocumented immigrants behind bars. "Congress came along in 2008 and directed the agency to place particular emphasis on the identification and removal of criminal offenders."

The program is called Secure Communities. Now, when local law enforcement makes an arrest, that person’s fingerprints are sent to the state’s data bank, and then are shared with the FBI, Homeland Security and immigration agents. They can remove any illegal immigrant they find in jail – and start deportation proceedings.

Morton says the technology is new, but not the basic principle. "State and local jurisdictions have always arrested individuals who it turns out not only are committing a crime in that jurisdiction, but are here unlawfully, and have always worked with the federal government to identify and remove those people. Secure Communities is just doing it in a way that is more uniform."

But Jenny Pasquarella, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, says the program is intended to target criminal aliens, "but in reality, it is sweeping up everyone who is identified as potentially deportable. The large majority of people who are being identified through the program are people who A, never committed any crime at all, or B, have committed or been convicted of low-level offenses such as traffic violations."

A lot depends on how you interpret the statistics. In California, about a third of those deported under Secure Communities had been convicted of serious felonies: murder, rape and the like. ICE says 72 percent of those deported are criminal aliens, convicted of either a felony or a misdemeanor.

But what about the other deportations – the 28 percent arrested, not charged but still deported? Ice Director John Morton says it's true that the program identifies and removes some individuals prior to conviction. "Why is that? Because many of the people that are referred to us have serious immigration violations that are themselves subject to federal enforcement."

But Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of San Jose says blanket enforcement creates a problem. She says some witnesses and crime victims might not come forward out of fear they’ll be grabbed up and deported. "If you take action that prevents people from contacting the police," she says, "then you’re undercutting public safety."

That’s the reason the sheriff of San Francisco says he’s defying federal immigration officials and releasing undocumented immigrants accused of misdemeanors. Cops in Southern California have a different take on the issue.