By Cindy V. Culp Tribune-Herald staff writer
Of the 18 local inmates who have been deported under the program so far, only three had past criminal convictions, according to data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As of July, the jail had submitted 3,955 sets of fingerprints to federal officials since the county signed on to the program at the end of January.
Of those, 155 were linked to someone suspected of being in the country illegally, the data show.
Seventeen of the matches involved Level 1 criminals. Those are people who have committed or been charged with the most serious offenses.
Examples include murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and drug crimes for which the sentence is at least a year.
Most of other matches — 109 — were for people nabbed for Level 2 or 3 crimes. Those include everything from arson and burglary to traffic violations.
The remaining 29 matches involved “noncriminals.” ICE uses that term to describe people with no criminal convictions.
When the numbers are crunched, the data show that about half of the noncriminals who were flagged have been deported, versus 2.4 percent of those with a criminal history.
Although it is theoretically possible some of the deported noncriminals were jailed on serious charges, Waco immigration attorney Susan Nelson said that has not been her observation.
The majority of such people are arrested after committing a traffic violation and not being able to produce a driver’s license, she said.
Nelson said she has no problem with the government using the program to locate and deport illegal immigrants who are committing real crimes. But she is troubled by the idea of generally law-abiding people also being ensnared, she said.
“For a lot of them, their only crime is not having a driver’s license,” Nelson said.
Nationally, immigration advocacy groups are expressing the same concern. Three groups recently obtained nationwide data about the jail initiative, which is called the Secure Communities program.
The information shows 79 percent of people deported under the program were noncriminals or committed lower-level crimes, according the groups. The advocacy groups include the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Day Laborer Organization Network and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
That data doesn’t jibe with the program’s stated purpose of catching illegal immigrants who pose the biggest public safety threat, the groups said.
They worry that the program gives cover to unscrupulous police officers who engage in racial profiling. It also can make immigrants fearful of reporting crimes, they warn.
“S-Comm co-opts local police departments to do ICE’s dirty work at significant cost to community relations and police objectives,” Sunita Patel, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a news release.
“Without full and truthful information about the program’s actual mission and impact, police are operating in the dark. The bottom line is that thrusting police into the business of federal immigration enforcement isn’t good for anyone.”
ICE officials and other program supporters disagree. They said it has helped identify dangerous people and caution that the data are not as clear-cut as they might seem.
The crux of the program is using fingerprints to determine people’s immigration status when they are booked into jail. Fingerprints don’t lie, officials said.
The program is in place only in select jurisdictions. Some 3,494 counties were participating as of early August.
The government’s goal is to implement the program nationwide by 2013. That will involve more than 30,000 local jails and booking locations.
In Central Texas, McLennan County is the only jurisdiction that has participated for any length of time. It came onboard in January at ICE’s request.
But surrounding counties have signed on recently. Limestone, Bell, Falls, Hill, Freestone and Coryell counties all started participating at the end of June, said Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman in San Antonio.
When the program reveals someone is here illegally, ICE can issue a detainer. That can start the deportation process.
But the current data do not reflect all such actions, Pruneda said. That’s especially true in areas like McLennan County, where the program is relatively new, she said.
For one thing, people have the right to fight deportation in court, Pruneda said. That can take months, meaning deportations don’t show up until later.
Plus, when an illegal immigrant is prosecuted for whatever charge he or she was arrested on, ICE doesn’t usually get custody until after the person has completed his or her sentence, Pruneda said. That potentially puts deportation on hold for years.
“Remember, this is only a six-month window,” Pruneda said of the local data. “To us, the program has been a success and continues to be a success.”
McLennan County Sheriff Larry Lynch also views the program favorably. Any time law enforcement agencies can cooperate with each other to protect public safety, that’s a positive thing, he said.
The fact that the program flags a relatively small number of Level 1 offenders is not surprising, Lynch said. Only a fraction of arrests, regardless of the person’s immigration status, are for crimes such as murder or sexual assault, he said.
If Secure Communities can help identify just one dangerous person here, Lynch said he thinks it’s worth the small amount of time and effort his staff spends facilitating it.
“What if that one person is a mass murderer, child molester or a bank robber?” Lynch said.
The following data pertain to the implementation of the Secure Communities program in McLennan County. The county has participated since the end of January and the data run through July.
The program is a project of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and aims to identify people who are in the country illegally. It revolves around jails submitting fingerprints of inmates so they can be compared to federal databases.
Total fingerprint sets submitted: 3,955
Number of matches indicating the person may be in the country illegally:
- Level 1
- Level 2 and 3 offenders: 109
- Non-criminals: 29
Number of people deported after a match is made:
- Level 1 offenders: 1
- Level 2 offenders: 2
- Level 3 offenders: 0
- Noncriminals: 15
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
The following shows the national impact of the Secure Communities program. The time period covered is from the program’s start in October 2008 through June of this year.
Number of people deported: 46,929
Level 1 offenders: 9,831
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
The Associated Press contributed to this story.