New York Times by Julia Preston
Fewer [undocumented] immigrants stopped by police for minor traffic violations would be held for deportation under changes announced Friday to a federal fingerprinting program, Department of Homeland Security officials said.
The policy change on how federal agents will handle [undocumented] immigrants arrested by state and local police for offenses like driving without a license came in the department’s response to a report by a task force on the federal program.
One of the task force’s central recommendations was that the program, called Secure Communities, should avoid deportations of traffic violators.
The sharply critical task force report, issued last September, argued that such deportations were inconsistent with the department’s stated priorities of removing foreigners with serious criminal records. The increase in deportations of minor offenders under Secure Communities, the task force concluded, was undermining vital ties of trust between local police and immigrant neighborhoods.
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Under the program, fingerprints of anyone booked by the police are checked against F.B.I. criminal databases — long a routine procedure — and also against databases of the Department of Homeland Security, which include immigration violations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, has been rapidly extending the program with the goal of reaching all 3,181 jurisdictions in the country by next year.
Homeland Security officials contended that the new policy on traffic violators could bring a major change in the program’s impact.
As the program spread, more local arrests resulted in immigration holds, and illegal immigrants who did not have criminal convictions found themselves facing deportation because of tickets for speeding, burned-out tail lights or driving without a license.
In all but a handful of states, immigrants here illegally cannot obtain driver’s licenses.
Under the refinement, when illegal immigrants are arrested solely for traffic offenses and do not have a prior criminal record, federal agents will only consider placing a hold — known as a detainer — after they are convicted.
“ICE agrees that enforcement action based solely on a charge for a minor traffic offense is generally not an efficient use of government resources,” the department response says.
Immigrants arrested for drunken driving would not benefit from the new policy, officials said.
In practice, most traffic violators are released well before they are convicted, and now immigrants stopped by traffic police will not remain in custody to be picked up by federal agents.
Detainers are only in effect as long as the immigrant is in local police custody, homeland security officials said.