All of California now linked up to immigration enforcement network
By Matt O'Brien Contra Costa Times Posted: 02/25/2011
MARTINEZ -- The federal immigration agency has finally linked all California police agencies to reveal immigrants -- legal or not -- arrested for violating laws and subject to deportation.
The action, to be announced Friday morning in Southern California, enables U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to tag arrests and travel to all of the state's county jails to pick up immigrants accused of committing crimes.
In essence, local police, willingly or not, have become an arm of the federal immigration agency.
The fingerprints of everyone arrested by local police are now sent automatically to an electronic database reviewed by ICE, whose agents go to county jails to pick up immigrants thought to be deportable, including illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who may have committed a crime.
Since San Diego County became the first in the state to join in spring 2009, and the 57 other counties gradually followed suit, immigration agents say the network has helped bring in and deport 32,645 immigrants from California, including 23,712 who were convicted of a crime.
The program has the support of most of the Bay Area's nine county sheriffs, who oversee the local jails. More than 6,400 people arrested by Bay Area police departments have been delivered to ICE custody in the past year.
"It's more consistent. Fewer people are slipping through the cracks," said Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern.
Other local law enforcement leaders contend the program casts too wide a net, and erodes the relationship between police officers and the communities they are supposed to protect.
"It's not a program I'm enthusiastic about because an arrest is not a conviction," said Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus. "It's clear there's a very, very broad net of people who are getting swept up."
Magnus was surprised by the figures for Contra Costa County, which joined the network in April and has the Bay Area's highest number of immigration arrests and deportations. ICE has picked up nearly 2,000 immigrants from the county jails in Martinez and Richmond since April, and deported 657 of them by the end of January. Of those already deported, 367 were convicted of a crime.
In the four-month period ending Jan. 31, only Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties had more immigration arrests than Contra Costa.
The Obama administration considers Secure Communities an important tool in combating illegal immigration, and the program contributed to record-high deportations in recent years. ICE has described the program as targeting the "worst of the worst," capturing immigrants who committed crimes -- known as criminal aliens -- and removing them from the country.
Immigrant advocates say ICE's own data contradicts that argument. Serious criminals are a minority among the thousands caught through the system and deported. They point out that 27 percent of the Californians picked up by Secure Communities have no criminal records and that some were sent to deportation proceedings for violations as minor as running a stop sign.
"S-Comm has had a chilling effect on immigrants who would like to report crimes to police, but understandably are afraid to do so," said Angela Chan of the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus.
Marc Rapp, the acting national director of Secure Communities, countered that ICE prioritizes the people it chooses to pick up, and even those with no criminal record might be wanted for overstaying a visa or illegally re-entering the United States after being deported.
"Clearly we're not arresting and removing everyone we receive a match on," Rapp said.
The network has the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who as state attorney general ratified and repeatedly defended the agreement with ICE to launch the network statewide.
"Some activist groups have come to talk to me about being a part of this. I simply told them that it's federal law, and we comply," said Ahern, the Alameda County sheriff. "And it was the opinion of then-Attorney General Brown that it was just for public safety, and the interest of justice."
Ahern said Alameda County's jails in Dublin and Oakland have long checked inmates' immigrant status. Previously, however, "we had to manually scan documents of people we suspected were foreign-born," he said.
All of the Bay Area counties joined Secure Communities last year, though two -- San Francisco and Santa Clara -- resisted. They eventually were told they had no choice because the state had an agreement with ICE. This week, six rural Northern California counties -- Alpine, Del Norte, Lassen, Sierra, Siskiyou and Trinity -- became the last of California's 58 counties to link up. The agency plans have to Secure Communities activated nationwide by 2013.
Criticism of the program, especially in the Bay Area, caused consternation among federal immigration officials, according to internal ICE e-mails made public last week.
In May last year, responding to questions raised in Santa Clara, one ICE official wrote of "defusing the situation before it escalates," and another wrote that Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, "is up in arms about this," according to e-mails obtained by a group called Uncover the Truth, which opposes the Secure Communities program.
A branch official with ICE, after giving Santa Clara authorities a more detailed explanation of the program, e-mailed that "our sense was that they were looking for political cover." But local officials continued to fight back, and other states and cities across the country increasingly were joining them.
Amid months of hand-wringing discussions, ICE tried to rework its national message about the program, and also sought to harden the federal government's arguments about the program being mandatory. In one undated document that is described as a "guide to handling sensitive jurisdictions," ICE officials were advised to create a "ring of interoperability" around local governments that resist Secure Communities, pressuring the detractors to join their neighbors.
"Deliberative, internal correspondence should not be confused for final policy," ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a statement about the released documents. "Because Secure Communities is fundamentally an information sharing partnership between federal agencies, state and local jurisdictions cannot opt out from the program, though state and local jurisdictions can opt not to receive the results of immigration queries."
The top-down process has frustrated some law enforcement leaders.
"Local communities have been largely left out of the decision-making," said Magnus, the Richmond police chief. "The way that this has been rolled out nationally has not been done in a particularly open or transparent way, and there has not been a really thoughtful discussion about the unintended consequences."
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill Feb. 18 that would force California to reconsider the language of its agreement with ICE. Ammiano wants cities and counties to be able to opt in or opt out, and also wants more statewide protections preventing domestic violence victims and other vulnerable immigrants from being taken into federal custody.
"California was one of the earliest states to sign on to it, but their memorandum is very generic," Ammiano said. "What we've agreed to in California is basically a boilerplate without any protections."