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Posted Thursday, September 15, 2011

Deportation Program Draws More Criticism

A task force advising an Obama administration deportation program has sharply criticized immigration officials for creating “much confusion” with the public about its purposes, and found that the program had an “unintended negative impact” on public safety in local communities.

In a report on the program, known as Secure Communities, the task force said that immigration officials had eroded public trust with conflicting statements about what immigrants were being singled out for deportation and whether states and cities were required to participate. The New York Times obtained a copy of the task force’s report, which was completed on Wednesday.

In the most significant of its recommendations, the task force said that fingerprint identifications through the program should no longer lead federal agents to detain immigrants arrested by local police for minor traffic violations. Secure Communities has been presented by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency operating it, as aimed at deporting “the worst of the worst” illegal immigrants, those convicted of serious criminal and immigration offenses.

The task force, which includes top law enforcement officers from four major cities, urged immigration officials to start over and “reintroduce” the program in many places where local opposition had swelled. Obama administration officials have described Secure Communities as central to their efforts at curbing illegal immigration by deporting as many as 400,000 foreigners a year.

John Morton, director of the immigration agency, known as ICE, named the task force in June in an effort to channel and address rising resistance from state officials, local police chiefs and immigrant organizations. But in its final hours, the group produced new dissension. Five of its 19 members resigned on Wednesday rather than endorse the report’s final findings.

In a letter on Wednesday, representatives of three unions, including the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and two unions of the immigration agency’s officers and employers, said the final report “demonstrates a clear absence of our voice.” They did not specify the issues on which they disagreed.

Arturo Venegas, the former police chief of Sacramento and director of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a police organization pressing for a federal overhaul of immigration law, said in a resignation letter that the program was “deeply flawed” and was “undermining public safety.” He said the task force recommendations did not go far enough to ensure that immigrants detained for minor local offenses would not be deported, and he felt the program should be suspended until it could be fixed.

Brittney Nystrom of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group, also resigned.

The 33-page report shows that divisions persisted among the remaining members, with some calling for the program’s suspension and some, particularly law enforcement officers, supporting it over all.

Under Secure Communities, fingerprints collected from anyone arrested by local or state police are checked against F.B.I. criminal databases — a routine police procedure — and also through Department of Homeland Security databases, which record immigration violations.

After initiating the program in 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has extended it across about half of the country, in many cases amid local outcry. But this year three governors and a growing number of cities expressed a reluctance to join.

According to the report, there was a “strong consensus view” on the task force that it was appropriate for Secure Communities to focus on deporting “serious criminal offenders.” But in four public hearings, the task force learned of many cases of immigrants stopped by police for minor traffic offenses — or in some cases for no offense at all — who were swept into deportation after being flagged by a Secure Communities check.

As a result, immigrant communities perceived that local police were enforcing federal immigration laws, leaving a “harmful impact” on trust that discouraged communities from reporting crimes.

“To the extent that Secure Communities may damage community policing, the result can be greater levels of crime,” the report found. “Mixing individuals who have no criminal convictions or only low-level convictions with serious offenders is having the unintended consequence of undercutting the credibility of the entire program.”

The task force chastised the immigration agency for making confusing statements about the legal authorities underpinning the program, which officials now say require them to extend it nationwide by 2013.

The task force said immigration authorities should exercise far broader prosecutorial discretion to focus deportations on convicted criminals and steer away from immigrants with only civil violations. That kind of discretion is routine in police work, the group said, and “does not amount to administrative amnesty,” as some Republicans critics of the Obama administration have argued.

Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Thursday, September 15, 2011.


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