Obama: Check more immigration status of inmates
By Spencer S. Hsu
The Washington Post, May 19, 2009
Washington, DC — The Obama administration is expanding a program initiated by President George W. Bush aimed at checking the immigration status of virtually every person booked into local jails. In four years, the measure could result in a tenfold increase in deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, according to current and former U.S. officials.
By matching inmates' fingerprints to federal immigration databases, authorities hope to pinpoint deportable immigrants before they are released from custody. Inmates in federal and state prisons already are screened. But authorities generally lack the time and staff to do the same at the nation's local jails, which house up to twice as many illegal immigrants and where inmates come and go more quickly.
The effort is likely to significantly reshape immigration enforcement, current and former executive branch officials said. It comes as the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress vow to crack down on criminals, rather than illegal immigrants who otherwise abide by the law.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano 'has made that very clear' that her top priority is deporting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, said David J. Venturella, program director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
'We mean this, we're serious about it, and we believe we need to put in an all-out effort to get this done,' said Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, who has led calls to remove illegal immigrants convicted of crimes after their sentences are served.
The program began as a pilot effort in October and now operates in 48 counties across the country. This year, it will screen fingerprints from 1 million local jail bookings. It is operating in Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Boston and Phoenix, according to ICE, and will expand to all local jails by the end of 2012.
Under the new program, the immigration checks will be automatic: fingerprints that already are being run through the FBI's criminal history database also will be matched against immigration databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. The effort would not catch people who have never been fingerprinted by U.S. authorities.
Based on the pilot program so far, the agency estimates that if fingerprints from all 14 million bookings in local jails each year were screened, about 1.4 million 'criminal aliens' would be found, Venturella said. That would be about 10 times the 117,000 criminal illegal immigrants ICE removed from the country last year. There are more than 3,100 local jails nationwide, compared with about 1,200 federal and state prisons.
The program, known as Secure Communities, 'presents an historic opportunity to transform immigration enforcement,' said Julie Myers Wood, who launched the program last year as head of ICE under Bush.
In his proposed 2010 budget, President Barack Obama asked Congress last week for $200 million for the program, a 30 percent increase that puts it on track to receive $1.1 billion by 2013.
The program could help answer for the first time a question that has been intertwined with debates over immigration policy: What portion of the illegal immigrant population in this country has committed non-immigration crimes?
But even some supporters of the program are skeptical about whether it can be implemented smoothly and if there will be sufficient funding. A surge in deportation cases, noted Stewart Baker, former DHS assistant security of policy, would require more prosecutors and immigration judges, detention beds and other resources.
Venturella also acknowledged that integrating federal, state and local databases is complex and that the capabilities of local jurisdictions vary across the country. Some counties may take several years to be linked in.
'It's a good program. It's a very expensive program,' said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates tighter immigration controls. 'I don't know if it's feasible or sensible for all state and local governments.'
Venturella said ICE will give priority to deporting the most dangerous offenders: national security risks or those convicted of violent crimes. Based on initial projections, the agency estimates that there are about 100,000 of these 'Level 1 offenders' and that deporting them would cost $1.1 billion over four years. Removing all criminal illegal immigrants would cost $3 billion, ICE said last year.
Critics say that deporting the worst criminal illegal immigrants does not go far enough because it would not deal with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States or deter further illegal immigration.
'If the Obama administration abandons immigration enforcement in all but the most serious criminal cases, then they will create a de-facto amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants and will encourage even more illegal immigration,' said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
He said the Obama administration should complete construction of a border fence, enforce laws against illegal hiring and deport illegal immigrants before they commit crimes.
Amnesty International and immigrant advocates warn that the change could lead to wider use of immigration checks in other arenas and the 'criminalization' of illegal immigration.
Tom Barry, an analyst for the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit research and policy institute in Washington, said the initiative could sweep up foreign-born U.S. residents who served time for offenses in the past but who the government did not deport at the time.
'Many, many legal immigrants are going to be pulled into this net even for minor violations that they're booked for traffic violations, drunk driving, whatever and after they've lived here 10 or 20 years, they're going to be deported,' Barry said.
By checking all people who are booked, the program avoids racial profiling, supporters say. It also could stem what some see as overzealous efforts by some local authorities who, through a $60 million-a-year ICE training program, have stepped up their efforts to catch illegal immigrants through measures such as neighborhood sweeps and traffic stops.
'The administration should reassert the primacy of the federal government's role in enforcing immigration law,' said Donald Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, praising the new ICE effort. However, he said it should be coupled with efforts to find lawyers for immigrants in deportation proceedings, which unlike criminal courts do not provide public defenders.