Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Deportation Program Grows; Texas Fully Adopts Much-Debated Federal Plan Aimed at All Counties by 2013
By ANA CAMPOY
The Wall Street Journal
October 18, 2010
AUSTIN, Texas—A federal program that scans local jails for illegal immigrants is being expanded across the state, the latest front in the nation's battle over immigration policy.
In the past two weeks, Texas became the first border state to fully deploy the Department of Homeland Security program, which is scheduled to be rolled out to all U.S. counties by 2013. The program automatically routes prisoners' fingerprints to the department, which tries to determine whether they are allowed to be in the U.S.
Known as Secure Communities, the program is designed to intercept and remove illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes such as homicide, rape and kidnapping, immigration officials say.
But immigrant groups and lawyers argue it is also singling out immigrants with no serious criminal record, clogging up the courts. Political analysts say Secure Communities and related programs are alienating Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters from the Obama administration.
"Why are we wasting funds to deport people who aren't even supposed to be targets of the program?" said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which provides legal assistance to low-income people.
Proponents of stricter immigration controls contend Secure Communities is a step in the right direction to protect the nation from dangerous illegal immigrants.
"Every day, we have murders and serious crimes committed against citizens and legal immigrants," said Janice Kephart, national-security policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbing all immigration to the U.S. "It is a public-safety issue."
The expanded program comes at a time when a national debate is raging over Arizona's immigration law, which would require local police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other possible violations.
The federal government has successfully blocked that law in court so far, arguing it shifts responsibility for immigration enforcement from federal to local officials.
Unlike the Arizona law, Secure Communities doesn't require local law enforcement to perform any additional tasks. Using fingerprints the police already have collected for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it merges those records with Homeland Security's database, which contains all legal and some illegal entrants into the U.S. That assists the department in identifying criminal suspects in violation of immigration laws. If the fingerprints don't match any record, Homeland Security can deploy immigration officers to the jail to investigate further.
Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano touted the success of the program, saying Secure Communities contributed to a 70% increase since 2008 in deportations of criminal suspects who were illegal immigrants.
But many in the Hispanic community are frustrated over Secure Communities and related Obama administration programs, which they see as a step-up in deportations without addressing other facets of the immigration debate, such as whether there will be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"Not only are they not helping to solve the issue, but they are criminalizing more immigrants," said union organizer Ben Monterroso of Secure Communities.
As head of a multistate campaign to boost Latino turnout, he is trying to persuade Latinos to put their frustration aside and go to the polls.
A recent poll by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that Latinos are less motivated than other voters to go to the polls in November.
In Arlington, Va., and Santa Clara County, Calif., local officials recently passed resolutions to opt out from Secure Communities in response to community concerns that the program would make immigrants afraid of the police and result in the deportation of non-criminals.
Since 2008, when Secure Communities was launched in individual counties around the nation, more than a quarter of the illegal immigrants identified by the program and sent back to their countries of origin were non-criminals, government statistics show.
In Travis County, Texas, where Austin sits, about 1,000 immigrants have been removed since Secure Communities was deployed in the county in 2009. More than 30% had no criminal record.
In San Antonio, the nearest immigration court, the number of pending cases has grown to about 4,800 so far this year, compared with 1,821 in 2008, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Noe Jimenez Ruano, a day laborer from Guatemala, was arrested for criminal trespassing in July while standing outside an Austin business looking for work, according to his lawyer and the director of the shelter where he lived.
A magistrate judge found no probable cause for the arrest, but immigration officials learned he was in the country illegally through the booking process and deported him last month.
Nicole True, Mr. Jimenez Ruano's lawyer, said, "People forget that the way someone ends up in jail is based on a human being making a decision."
Homeland Security has said that while Secure Communities focuses on dangerous criminals, the agency has the authority to remove anyone who enters the U.S. illegally.
An agency official said some immigrants categorized as non-criminal have lengthy rap sheets of charges and arrests but have never been convicted.
Write to Ana Campoy at email@example.com