By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009;
The Obama administration is expanding a program initiated by President George W. Bush aimed at checking the immigration status of virtually every person booked into local jails. In four years, the measure could result in a tenfold increase in illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes and identified for deportation, current and former U.S. officials said.
By matching inmates' fingerprints to federal immigration databases, authorities hope to pinpoint deportable illegal immigrants before they are released from custody. Inmates in federal and state prisons already are screened. But authorities generally lack the time and staff to do the same at local jails, which house up to twice as many illegal immigrants at any time and where inmates come and go more quickly.
The effort is likely to significantly reshape immigration enforcement, current and former executive branch officials said. It comes as the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress vow to crack down on illegal immigrants who commit crimes, rather than those who otherwise abide by the law.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made it "very clear" that her top priority is deporting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, said David J. Venturella, program director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We mean this, we're serious about it, and we believe we need to put in an all-out effort to get this done," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security. He has led calls to remove illegal immigrants convicted of crimes after their sentences are served.
The program began as a pilot effort in October and operates in 48 counties across the country, including Fairfax County. This year, fingerprints from 1 million local jail bookings will be screened under the program. It also operates Dallas, Houston, Miami, Boston and Phoenix, according to ICE, and will expand to Los Angeles this year and nearly all local jails by the end of 2012.
The effort differs from programs in several Northern Virginia counties where local law enforcement officers have been deputized to question suspects about whether they are in the country legally. In Montgomery County, police provide immigration authorities the names of those arrested on charges of violent crimes and handgun violations.
Under the new program, the immigration checks will be automatic: Fingerprints currently being run through the FBI's criminal history database also will be matched against immigration databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. The effort would not catch people who have never been fingerprinted by U.S. authorities.
Based on the pilot program, the agency estimates that if fingerprints from all 14 million bookings in local jails each year were screened, about 1.4 million "criminal aliens" would be found, Venturella said. That would be about 10 times the 117,000 criminal illegal immigrants ICE deported last year. There are more than 3,100 local jails nationwide, compared with about 1,200 federal and state prisons.
The program, known as Secure Communities, "presents an historic opportunity to transform immigration enforcement," said Julie Myers Wood, who launched it last year while head of ICE.
In his proposed 2010 budget, President Obama asked Congress last week for $200 million for the program, a 30 percent increase that puts it on track to receive $1.1 billion by 2013.
The program could help answer for the first time a question that has been intertwined with debates over immigration policy: How many illegal immigrants in the United States are convicted of non-immigration crimes?
But even some supporters of the program wonder whether it can be implemented smoothly and whether there will be sufficient funding. A surge in deportation cases, noted Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary of homeland security for policy, would require more prosecutors, immigration judges, detention beds and other resources.
Venturella also acknowledged that integrating federal, state and local databases is complex and that the capabilities of local jurisdictions vary. Some counties may take several years to be linked in.
"It's a good program. It's a very expensive program," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates tighter immigration controls. "I don't know if it's feasible or sensible for all state and local governments."
Venturella said ICE will give priority to deporting the most dangerous offenders: national security risks or those convicted of violent crimes. Based on initial projections, the agency estimates that 100,000 of these are "Level 1 offenders" and that deporting them would cost $1.1 billion over four years. Removing all criminal illegal immigrants would cost $3 billion, ICE estimated last year.
Critics say that deporting the worst criminal illegal immigrants, by itself, does not go far enough because it would not fully address the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States or deter further illegal immigration.
"If the Obama administration abandons immigration enforcement in all but the most serious criminal cases, then they will create a de facto amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants and will encourage even more illegal immigration," said Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
He said the Obama administration should complete construction of a border fence, enforce laws against hiring illegal workers and deport illegal immigrants before they commit crimes.
Amnesty International and immigrant advocates warn that the change could lead to immigration checks in other arenas and the "criminalization" of illegal immigration.
Tom Barry, an analyst for the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit research and policy institute in Washington, said the initiative could sweep up foreign-born U.S. residents who have served time for offenses but were not deported.
"Many, many legal immigrants are going to be pulled into this net even for minor violations that they're booked for -- traffic violations, drunk driving, whatever -- and after they've lived here 10 or 20 years, they're going to be deported," Barry said.
By checking all people who are booked, supporters say, the program avoids racial profiling. It also could stem what some see as overzealous efforts by some local authorities who, through a $60 million-a-year ICE training program, have stepped up their pursuit of illegal immigrants through measures such as neighborhood sweeps and traffic stops.
"The administration should reassert the primacy of the federal government's role in enforcing immigration law," said Donald Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. He said, however, that such action should be coupled with efforts to find lawyers for immigrants in deportation proceedings. Unlike in criminal courts, the immigration court system does not provide public defenders.