If you are arrested in Oakland, prepare to have your immigration history checked.
Alameda County recently became the fourth Bay Area county to participate in a federal immigration enforcement program that mandates fingerprint checks on everyone booked at local jails to determine whether they are subject to deportation. The program, which was locally introduced on April 20 and is slowly expanding across the country, has been criticized by civil rights advocates who say its implementation could lead to racial profiling and the deportation of immigrants who do not pose a public safety threat.
The program is called Secure Communities and is administered by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, commonly known as ICE. Under the program, ICE will receive alerts whenever the system reveals that someone booked in a local jail is subject to deportation. “Our hopes are to quickly identify criminal aliens who come into the system,” said Craig Meyer, Assistant Field Office Director for Detention and Removal Operations at ICE’s San Francisco office. “We want to make the Bay Area community safer and that is the goal with this.”
Currently, about 165 jurisdictions in 20 states are participating. Congress has allocated $550 million to the program over the last three years, and by 2013, it is supposed to be operating in every jail across the country.
The introduction of Secure Communities in Alameda County comes at a moment when the topic of immigration law enforcement has taken center stage both nationally and locally. The recent passage of Arizona’s stringent law S.B. 1070 has sparked an outcry in Oakland; S.B. 1070 gives Arizona police the power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and criminally charge immigrants who are not carrying valid immigration documents. On Tuesday night, the Oakland City Council passed a resolution to boycott Arizona, finding that the new law “will inevitably lead to racial profiling, jeopardize public safety, and create a wedge between law enforcement and ethnic communities.” Last Friday and Saturday, immigration advocates marched in Oakland to decry the law and demand immigration reform.
Yet so far, the Secure Communities program has garnered little publicity in Oakland. Several people contacted to comment for this story said they were not previously aware that the program is operating in Alameda County.
But in other parts of the country, civil and immigrant rights advocates have taken a hard stand against the federal program. Last week, three rights groups based in New York and Los Angeles launched a public awareness campaign in opposition of Secure Communities. Their press release accused the program of being “little more than a racial profiling dragnet to funnel even more people into the overburdened and mismanaged ICE detention and removal system.”
City Council members in Washington, D.C. have introduced a bill in response to the program that would prevent local police from sharing arrest and booking records with ICE.
Meanwhile, ICE asserts that the congressionally mandated program promotes public safety. Agency officials point to the case of a Richmond man named Juan Ruelas, who was criminally charged last month with drunk driving and murder for his alleged role in a hit and run accident that left a motorcyclist dead. When Ruelas was booked at a Martinez jail, ICE officials say, his fingerprints showed that he had been previously convicted of driving under the influence. Because the jail participated in the Secure Communities program, his fingerprints were also checked against a series of immigration databases that ICE maintains revealed he was in the country illegally and had already been deported numerous times. Once Ruelas’ criminal case is complete, he will be transferred to ICE custody. He could be subject to additional criminal charges for illegally re-entering the country and will almost certainly be deported again.
Secure Communities is actually the second protocol that ICE is using in Alameda County to identify immigrants booked in jails. On most days, ICE officers stop by the Santa Rita and Glenn E. Dyer jails (in Dublin and Oakland, respectively) to interview foreign-born inmates who lack Social Security numbers to determine whether they are in the country illegally.
But the addition of Secure Communities promises to identify even more individuals who are subject to deportation by crosschecking everyone’s fingerprints against databases of over 110 million immigration records. Those records include the prints of people who were caught by border patrol, previously deported, granted visas, or who are legal permanent residents. The program can identify undocumented immigrants who have had a past brush with authorities as well as legal immigrants who are subject to deportation if they are convicted of certain crimes. While ICE has the authority to remove anyone who is in the country illegally, Meyer said, “Our priority is Level 1 offenders, obviously—national security cases, murder, rape, robbery.”
Yet critics point out that the vast majority of people who have been deported so far have been charged with what the program calls Level 2 offenses—mostly property crimes and minor drug offenses—or Level 3, which includes misdemeanors. According to ICE’s own data, of the 33,000 people deported under Secure Communities since the program was first introduced in late 2008, only 12 percent have been Level 1 offenders.
“So unfortunately it doesn’t appear that the data backs up ICE’s assertion that they are going after the worst of the worst,” said Aarti Kohli, Director of Immigration Policy at Berkeley Law School’s Earl Warren Institute. Immigrants arrested for something as minor as a traffic violation can wind up deported as a result of the program, she said. “No one is arguing that if you have a low level offense that law enforcement shouldn’t use the appropriate sanction. But does it mean you should be deported? That is another question.”
Cassandra Lopez, an attorney who represents immigrants facing deportation at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, said some of her immigrant clients were arrested for low-level offenses in Oakland, such as driving without a license, even when police had the discretion to issue a ticket, instead. She says she fears Secure Communities could prompt police to aggressively pursue immigrants for minor offenses since their arrest could trigger deportation. “I think that the way the program works creates the incentive to arrest people who may not be guilty of things that require arrest,” she said. People who are booked in jail are fingerprinted, and therefore subject to immigration checks, regardless of whether they are ultimately formally charged with a crime.
Kohli co-authored a report last year that found that police in Irving, Texas, began arresting more Latinos for low-level offenses once ICE began looking for undocumented immigrants at the local jail. “Immigrant communities as a result, are becoming increasingly distrustful of police,” Kohli said. “And that is not a good phenomenon in terms of creating a safer community for everyone.”
Unlike Arizona’s S.B. 1070, or another ICE program called 287(g), in which local police can be deputized to enforce federal immigration laws, Secure Communities does not spell out any new protocols for local police agencies. “We haven’t told them to look for illegal aliens,” said ICE’s Craig Meyer of local law enforcement. “That is our job. Our job is to identify illegal criminal aliens and get them into the process and remove them if that is the case.”
Alameda County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sergeant JD Nelson said his department’s duties will stay the same since they have always forwarded fingerprints to state authorities to check for criminal history. “We still send the fingerprints up like we used to,” said Nelson. “Its just now we have another agency looking into it.”
Nelson said the county did not have a say in whether it would participate in the federal program, but said immigration officials have searched for unauthorized immigrants in local jails since as early as the 1940’s. He said Secure Communities would not change how police will interact with immigrants. “We still don’t have any law saying that we can stop anyone simply for looking like an illegal alien,” he said. “So that is not going to happen in California.”
Still, Cassandra Lopez from Centro Legal de la Raza said she sees some similarities between Arizona’s S.B. 1070 and Secure Communities. “Like the Arizona law, Secure Communities contributes to the portrayal of immigrants as ‘criminals,’” she said, noting that her organization would begin warning clients about the new program.
In 2007, Oakland passed a resolution to reaffirm the city as a “Sanctuary City,” meaning that city officials do not enforce federal immigration laws. Oakland was first designated as a sanctuary for refugees fleeing South Africa, Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador in 1986, but the 2007 resolution expanded the protection to all immigrants. That legislation does say that law enforcement will continue to collaborate with ICE on public safety matters and that the city is mandated by state and federal law to cooperate with ICE on criminal investigations.
A radio version of this story was broadcast on Crosscurrents on KALW 91.7 FM at 5 pm on Wednesday, May 5.
This article has been corrected to reflect that Congress has appropriated $550 million to Secure Communities, not $1.4 billion. Congress appropriated a total of $1.4 billion on various efforts to remove immigrants with criminal records from the country.
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