50,000 Deported From County Jails, And Counting

A new federal program expedites the process even for traffic violations.

By Seth Freed Wessler Aug 11, 2010

A rapidly expanding federal program that checks the immigration statuses of anyone booked into state and local jails is creating SB 1070 like conditions all over the country, according to recently obtained data.

The program, called Secure Communities, sends Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement information on anyone in police custody. So far, it’s resulted in almost 50,000 deportations.

ICE claims the program "focuses immigration enforcement on the most dangerous criminal aliens first" and is not intended to target people with low-level convictions.

But data released to the press yesterday, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act suit by the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Day Laborers Organizing Network and the Cardozo School of Law, tells a different story.

The vast majority of those identified and deported through the program since its implementation were either convicted of low level crimes or had no convictions at all. Those without convictions comprised more than a quarter of all those deported through the program.

Sarahi Uribe, an organizer with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network said that the numbers "show the vast majority of people were picked up for things like traffic violations. A quarter were picked up for nothing. Day laborers, street vendors and the domestic workers are most impacted."

Massive disparities were uncovered between the national numbers and particular localities. In Austin, for example, 82 percent of Secure Communities deportees had no convictions. In Arizona’s Maricopa Country, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio runs roughshod over immigrants, 56 percent were non-criminals.

The disparities raise serious questions about indiscriminately rounding up immigrants and targeting them based on race, says Bridget Kessler, of the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Cardozo School of Law.

"When local police are running immigration checks, there is fear that they will stop people based on appearance even if the charges are eventually dropped…We don’t know what ICE is doing to monitor these trends but it is their responsibility to prevent constitutional violations."

ICE categorizes deportees of the program as "criminal aliens." According to ICE, almost half of the close to to 279,035 removals this year have been of people listed as such. But the Secure Communities data suggests that a majority of those people have committed no crime at all or some minor infraction.

Secure Communities has now been implemented in 27 states and ICE says it will be operational nationwide by 2013. It appears impossible for localities to decide not to participate.

The San Francisco Country Sherriff, Mike Hennessey, says that he asked ICE whether the country could opt out of the program and was told that he’d have to appeal to his state’s attorney general on the matter. When Hennessey then wrote to California Attorney General Jerry Brown about opting out, Brown said that he should be in touch with Secure Communities administrators directly.

"There is still a discussion about whether counties can opt out, but it appears at this point that it is forced upon local communities," Hennessey said.

The program went into effect in San Francisco County in June.

Hennessey believes that the Secure Communities program may be just the first step toward a massively expanded use of government crime databases to deport immigrants.

He fears that the next stop may be that "employers doing record requests would inadvertently send information to ICE when they are trying to do background checks…. If someone is homecare worker, you have to be finger printed. ICE is not now looking at these fingerprints but ICE could."

Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Rights says there is still a lot to uncover and the groups will continue to pursue more information.

"All of us will be harmed, citizens and non-citizens," says Patel. "The potential for racial profiling concerns some police and the mixed messages from ICE all raise more questions than answers. We are continuing to litigate this case in order to get answers needed by the community."