Destined for deportation?

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By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Last Christmas Eve, Maria Bolanos made a decision she would later regret: During a fight with her partner, she called the Prince George's County police and sought their protection.

The call for help had disastrous consequences for Bolanos, a 28-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. Within months, she found herself involved in an increasingly controversial immigration enforcement program designed to deport undocumented criminals.

Bolanos now faces deportation and possible separation from her 21-month-old daughter, who was born here and is a U.S. citizen.

Her case illustrates what immigrant-rights advocates and some local officials consider the shortcomings of Secure Communities, the centerpiece of the Obama administration's immigration enforcement efforts and a program that has helped generate a record number of deportations.

Secure Communities, which operates in the District, Maryland, Virginia and soon will be running nationwide, relies on fingerprints collected by local authorities when a person is charged with anything from a traffic violation to murder.

In Bolanos's case, the officer who responded to the domestic dispute at her apartment in Hyattsville later charged her with illegally selling a $10 phone card to a neighbor - an allegation she denies. The charge was eventually dropped, but by then Bolanos had been been fingerprinted and found to be in the country illegally by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

She has been told she probably will be deported after a Wednesday hearing before an immigration judge in Baltimore.

Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement said removals during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 included more than 1,000 murderers, nearly 6,000 sex offenders, 45,000 drug offenders and 28,000 drunk drivers. The number fell short of the agency expectation of 400,000 deportations but still surpassed the 2009 total of 387,790, the previous record.

Although ICE officials have touted the large numbers of criminals who are being deported via Secure Communities, they are unapologetic about the significant number of non-criminals being removed as well. In the past year, more than half of the 392,000 immigrants deported were convicted criminals; the rest had overstayed their visas or entered the country without authorization.

"ICE cannot and will not turn a blind eye to those who violate federal immigration law," said ICE spokesman Brian Hale. "While ICE's enforcement efforts prioritize convicted criminal aliens, ICE maintains the discretion to take action on any alien it encounters."

Not surprisingly, immigrant-rights groups have been critical of the administration's efforts to ratchet up deportations without delivering on the president's campaign promise to create a path to citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But Secure Communities also has come under attack in Arlington County, the District and other jurisdictions, where local officials worry that it is discouraging undocumented immigrants who are crime victims and witnesses from coming forward.


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