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Reversals by immigration officials are sowing mistrust

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 10:02 PM

Months after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured House Democrats that jurisdictions could opt out of a controversial immigration enforcement program, officials reversed themselves and said opting out was not possible.

Weeks after quelling a growing furor on the right by announcing an investigation into why an illegal immigrant who was driving drunk when he killed a nun in Prince William County had not been deported after two previous convictions, officials said they would not make the investigation's results public.

And hours after a senior official, who was publicly challenged last week by a Maryland woman facing deportation, assured the woman that she had not been picked up under a controversial immigration program, officials said the woman had indeed been identified via the program, known as Secure Communities.

Advocates on both the right and the left say these and other incidents have created a climate of mistrust in which immigration officials initially tell people want they want to hear, only to antagonize them later when reality kicks in.

Defenders of the administration say the problem is that officials have been placed in the impossible position of enforcing laws that they themselves believe are unfair and outdated.

"We have made a very high priority of transparency and candor," said Beth Gibson, assistant deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "We have posted all our policies online . . . we are operating openly and forthrightly."

But months after assuring Congress that local jurisdictions could opt out of Secure Communities - which runs fingerprints obtained by local police through a national database to see whether they belong to illegal immigrants - officials backtracked.

The letter Napolitano sent to Congress said, "a local law enforcement agency that does not wish to participate in the Secure Communities deployment plan must formally notify the Assistant Director for the Secure Communities program."

But what they meant, officials said, was only that communities could temporarily postpone when they signed up for the program.

"If I were writing the sentence now, it would say, 'Jurisdictions cannot opt out of Secure Communities, but we will work with you to mitigate your concerns,' " Gibson said.

Walter Tejada, an Arlington County Board member who spearheaded a resolution for the county to opt out of the program only to learn that it was impossible, said: "If that had been the case why didn't they tell us in May? Why did we have to go through all this hoopla?"

Similarly, after a public outcry in August over why officials had not deported drunk driver Carlos Martinelly-Montano, officials at the Department of Homeland Security promised an investigation.

Once the report was completed, officials said, they were not going to make the results public. Spokesman Matthew Chandler said the findings would be shared with Congress and local law enforcement. A senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, previously said the report would not be publicly released because of "law enforcement sensitivities."

"They say one thing and do another," Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, complained recently about the federal agency. "They say they are going to do something and then backtrack."

Last Thursday, when ICE Assistant Director David Venturella was confronted at a Wilson Center event by a Hyattsville woman in deportation proceedings about the Secure Communities program he heads, Venturella told Maria Bolanos that she had not been targeted via the program. "You were not a Secure Communities referral or a hit."

Hours later, agency spokesman Brian Hale e-mailed to say: "To clarify this situation, Ms. Bolanos was in fact encountered through Secure Communities."

Bolanos was detained by immigration officials after she received an arrest warrant for selling phone cards without a license. That charge stemmed from an earlier call for help she made to police during a domestic dispute. An officer who responded saw phone cards on her table and, believing she was selling them illegally, issued a summons. The charge was soon dropped, but by then Bolanos's fingerprints had gone to ICE via the Secure Communities program, and she was detained and put into deportation proceedings.

Gibson said Venturella was only "trying to make a clear distinction that the domestic violence call was not a direct cause of her coming into ICE custody."

"To me it is not news that someone from ICE is misrepresenting stuff," said Gustavo Andrade, organizing director of CASA de Maryland, an immigration rights group that is helping Bolanos.

Doris Meissner, a former immigration chief during the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said the problem was that Obama officials had found themselves in an impossible situation.

"On the one hand, they are embracing the idea that the laws need to be changed and current laws are not up to the task," she said, referring to administration pleas for an overhaul of the immigration system. "At the same time, it is their responsibility as executive branch officials, as the responsible heads of agencies, to implement the laws currently on the books."

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