Everyone booked into San Bernardino County jail will now face an immigration check as part of a new federal program that started in the county Tuesday.
Known as “Secure Communities,” the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program aims to identify and deport more dangerous criminals who are in the United States illegally.
Digitally scanned fingerprints are being submitted to a federal immigration database. Anyone booked who has had prior contact with immigration authorities could be investigated by ICE agents.
The effort began in late 2008 and is operating in more than 150 counties across the United States, including San Bernardino County, where it launched last month.
Immigrant advocates, alarmed by the rapid expansion of Secure Communities, say such programs operate with little public scrutiny and give officials discretion to target a broad range of people, including those who have not been charged with or convicted of a crime.
David Venturella, executive director of the Secure Communities management office in Washington, D.C., said by phone that the new system takes the burden off local law enforcement to identify potential illegal immigrants and places it back on ICE.
“This is not a program that casts a wide net. We’re focused on individuals who get arrested by local law enforcement,” he said. Some local jails already have deputies who are trained to enforce immigration law. But interviewing inmates to identify potential illegal immigrants is labor intensive, Venturella said. Those who are arrested often give false names and have no identification, making it difficult to determine their immigration status.
“By taking people’s biometrics, you make it impossible for people to use aliases,” said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. “Fingerprints don’t lie.”
Arden Wiltshire, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, said Secure Communities helps to catch deportable felons. Before, they might have “slipped through a loophole because we didn’t know who they were,” Wiltshire said.
“It’s going to be a benefit to the community,” she said.
Jails already are fingerprinting each person booked and running prints through an FBI criminal database. Now, the digitally scanned prints also will be sent to a Department of Homeland Security database that includes details about previous deportations and information on those who have applied for visas, permanent residency or citizenship. The database has information on some 110 million people, Venturella said.
When the system finds a fingerprint match, ICE agents investigate whether the person might be in the country illegally. If ICE agents choose to pursue deportation, they notify local law enforcement within a few hours.
ICE officials say they do not have the resources to pursue every case in which someone’s immigration status is suspect. They place priority on dangerous criminals, defined as those charged with or convicted of “major” drug offenses, national security crimes, and violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and kidnapping.
So while the system has the potential to identify many more undocumented immigrants, not all of them will land in immigration court.
Kice said that because the program is part of a broader strategy to increase the number of incarcerated and at-large illegal immigrants being identified and deported, she could not estimate the cost of Secure Communities. But she said from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2010, Congress appropriated $550 million to aid ICE efforts to identify and remove “criminal aliens.”
Kice said Secure Communities should allay the racial-profiling concerns of some immigrant advocates because it does not single out certain individuals for immigration checks.
“The process is blind,” she said. “It overcomes a lot of concerns.”
Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego County, where Secure Communities was launched last May, said that while the ICE review process might be blind, racial profiling can still come into play during arrests.
Although ICE officials emphasize criminality, Rios said there have been cases where people are found not guilty — or not charged at all — and immigration authorities continue efforts to deport them.
He said the most egregious case he has heard of involved a 17-year-old San Diego County boy who was accused of attempted murder but acquitted. Instead of being released to his family, he was turned over to ICE.
Rios said the boy was brought to the United States from Mexico as a baby and speaks little Spanish. His parents are not involved in his life and he has no connections in Mexico, Rios said. An aunt had agreed to take custody of the boy upon his release, but when she arrived to pick him up he was already in ICE custody.
After a few days of trying to locate him, the aunt contacted Rios’ organization. They learned he was transferred to an immigration detention facility in Illinois. Rios said they tried to help the aunt to find legal assistance there, but he does not know what became of the boy.
Kice pointed out that ICE does not make the final decision about whether someone will face deportation. In a case such as the one Rios described, she said, the individual would have the right to go before an immigration judge.
Rios said the recently passed Arizona law cracking down on undocumented immigrants casts ICE programs in a different light.
“It’s really interesting now with the debate about immigration in Arizona heating up,” he said.
By comparison, enforcement programs such as Secure Communities have been labeled as “OK,” Rios said. In his view, Rios said, “this is a more silent way to detain people. In some ways, these are much more dangerous because fewer people know about them.”
Fingerprints taken during booking at Inland jails are now being run through a federal database that contains records of deportations, visa applications and other immigration information. The federal program previously launched in neighboring counties.
San Diego County jails
(May 2009 launch through March 31)
Los Angeles County jails
(August 2009 launch through March 31)
Orange County jails
(March 10 launch through March 31)
SOURCE: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
By SARAH BURGE