Security Check For Immigrants

Security Check for Immigrants

By Sumathi Reddy
The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2010

New York has signed onto a controversial federal program that will allow jails in some communities to begin checking the immigration status of every person booked.

The state's Division of Criminal Justice Services recently reached an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to roll out the program known as 'Secure Communities' in the fall, according to officials with both agencies.

They say it's too early to tell if the program will be implemented in New York City, whose policies have been perceived as largely immigrant-friendly. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he supports the legalization of some undocumented workers and has been lobbying for an overhaul of immigration laws. He was in Washington Thursday to attend a speech by President Barack Obama on immigration.

In New York, the program to check inmates' legal status will launch in communities based on riskdefined as the percentage of undocumented immigrants with criminal recordsas well as interest from local law enforcement agencies. Its usage in other states has led to thousands of deportations.

About 30 jurisdictions have been initially identified to participate in the program, including several in the metropolitan area, said John M. Caher, a spokesman for the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services. He said parts of Westchester and Suffolk counties may take part.

ICE says it has not determined what communities in New York will begin the checks first.

'We're still doing outreach in New York state and that's going to continue throughout July and August,' said Harold Ort, an ICE spokesman. 'There is no activation of Secure Communities scheduled at this point.'

Immigration advocates have criticized the program, which matches inmates' fingerprints against a Department of Homeland Security biometric database so that authorities can identify immigrants they want to deport before they are released. Opponents of the program say it preemptively convicts people, creates mistrust between the immigrant communities and law enforcement, and unfairly prosecutes minor offenses. ICE officials say it's an information gathering tool.

Immigrants who have never been fingerprinted by immigrations officials wouldn't be flagged.

The program, which began under former President George W. Bush in 2008, is in 402 jurisdictions in 24 states. Federal officials hope to making it available to all communities by 2013. On Thursday, Fairfield County became the first community in Connecticut to begin the program. There is no target date for New Jersey.

Secure Communities has become a part of Mr. Obama's immigration strategy, in which the focus has shifted from workplace raids to deporting immigrants who have serious and violent criminal offenses. It is different from another program in which local law enforcement officers are trained to question suspects to determine whether they are undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Obama pushed Congress Thursday to pass comprehensive immigration legislation by toughening enforcement of the law and creating a path to citizenship.

Earlier this week, John T. Morton, assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE, issued a memo calling for his agency to focus on deporting criminals who pose a national security threat.

Still, immigration advocates said they were alarmed to hear that 'Secure Communities' could soon be in parts of New York. 'I think this kind of immigration enforcement expansion into local communities is just very counterproductive,' said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. 'I see this is as part of a dangerous trend of getting more and more non immigration entities getting involved in immigration enforcement. Where does it stop?' Some local officials withheld judgment.

'Without having reviewed the program, we can say generally that we believe coordination among the various levels of government is helpful in enhancing public safety,' said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who has taken a hard-line stance against illegal immigration in the past.

The New York Police Department is aware of the program but 'it's too early to say' if it's something it will implement, said police spokesman Paul Browne. 'We have to look at it.'

Several participating communities in other parts of the country have tried to opt out. In San Francisco, Sheriff Michael Hennessey is opposed to the program, which is currently in place. In Washington D.C., 'Secure Communities' has created a rift between the City Council and the police department, which wants the program in place.

Asked whether the program was mandatory, Richard Rocha, deputy press secretary for ICE, said communities can talk to the state agency overseeing it to determine what options they have.

'I don't believe we're requiring anyone to take part in it. I think it's a local decision,' Mr. Caher said.

Since October 2008, ICE says it has deported more than 8,500 immigrants convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder, rape and kidnapping, and more than 22,200 convicted of lesser crimes such as burglary.