23 hours ago
Edward Sifuentes
North County Times

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Sergio Lucio fingerprints a man booked into the Vista jail in 2011 and checks his immigration status as part of the Secure Communities program. Some cities and states are refusing to use the program, but the federal government says it's mandatory. Hayne Palmour IV | North County Times file photo

A bill introduced by a San Francisco assemblyman would prohibit local law enforcement agencies from detaining illegal immigrants for federal agents unless the detainees have prior felony convictions.

The measure, Assembly Bill 1081 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, is aimed at curtailing the federal Secure Communities program, which is credited with helping to deport thousands of illegal immigrants held in local jails. The program electronically matches the fingerprints of people booked into county jails against federal databases to help identify illegal immigrants.

Critics of the Secure Communities program say it has cast a wide net, catching many people who have never been convicted of any crimes.

"What is truly draconian is the endless stream of heart-breaking stories of food vendors, crime victims, even U.S. citizens and so many other community members trapped needlessly in local jails and swept in an out-of-control deportation dragnet," Ammiano said in a written statement.

The bill was introduced last year, but lawmakers held it in a Senate committee for changes. Ammiano rewrote and reintroduced the bill last month.

Under the measure, law enforcement officers would be prohibited from detaining a person for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after the person is eligible to be released from custody unless that person has been convicted of a serious or violent felony.

Some law enforcement groups oppose the bill. San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore said the proposal was bad idea.

"I disagree with the bill," Gore said. "To me, it goes too far."

San Diego County was one of the earliest participants in the Secure Communities program. In San Diego County, ICE agents working in the jails run immigration checks on inmates. That means deputies don't have to do any of the work, Gore said.

Secure Communities started with 14 jurisdictions nationwide in 2008 and has grown to more than 1,400, including all counties in California.

Since it started, more than 7,400 people have been deported using Secure Communities in San Diego County. Of those who were deported, about 1,670, or 22 percent, had no criminal convictions, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Critics of the program say too many innocent people are being deported.

For example, Elena Cabrera, an Escondido woman who called police on a domestic violence incident, was nearly deported last year. She was taken to jail along with her live-in boyfriend because he claimed that she had hit him back during an argument.

While in jail, Cabrera was identified as an illegal immigrant and held in custody for several days. An immigration lawyer was able to have her released due to a pending immigration application.

Incidents similar to Cabrera's means that people who are in the country illegally will be less likely to report crimes in the future, immigrant rights advocates say.

"The federal government's Secure Communities program is out of control, becoming more of a dragnet that unfairly sweeps up community members for deportation," said Pedro Rios, San Diego director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker human rights organization.

Critics say the program also encourages racial profiling. They say officers may arrest Latinos and others perceived as being in the country illegally, knowing that their immigration status will be checked in jail.

Victor Torres, a criminal defense attorney and a spokesman for El Grupo, a North County based umbrella organization of civil and immigrant rights groups, said the Ammiano bill is a good step forward, but it does not address the racial profiling concerns.

"The bill would go a long way to ensure that only true bad guys are handled in the criminal system," Torres said. "But how does one fix racial profiling? It exists in the prejudices and fears that we carry."

According to a report released last year by UC Berkeley's law school and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, 93 percent of immigrants arrested under Secure Communities were Latinos. But Latinos make up 75 percent of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Secure Communities began under President George W. Bush, but it has flourished under President Barack Obama. It was initially billed as a voluntary program primarily aimed at catching hardened illegal immigrant criminals. However, the Obama administration said last year that the program was mandatory after several agencies, including the San Francisco Sheriff's Department refused to participate.

Gore said the program strikes a balance between the needs of local law enforcement to protect the community and the federal government's efforts to protect the nation's borders.

"I'm a firm believer that immigration enforcement is primarily a responsibility of the federal government, but that doesn't mean that we can't cooperate," Gore said.

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IMMIGRATION: Bill would cut local authority to hold illegal immigrants for feds : North County Times - Californian