By Gregg MacDonald
Fairfax County Times
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 9:11 PM
Ask Sheriff Stan G. Barry (D) about Secure Communities, an initiative to identify illegal immigrants with criminal records, and he will say it is successful. Others, however, say the program's success is misleading and comes at a high price.
On Nov. 30, Barry outlined the program and its effects on Fairfax County as part of "Ask Fairfax!," an online forum in which county staff members engage in discussions with constituents about key Fairfax County topics.
Administered and paid for by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the program cross-checks anyone booked into the county jail with federal databases for criminal records and immigration status. If an immigration violation is matched to a suspect, ICE requests that local law enforcement detain a suspect after incarceration, or exoneration if charges are dropped, to determine whether federal action, such as deportation, is required. The decision takes into consideration the immigration status of the illegal immigrant and his or her criminal history, according to ICE.
"The program works very well for us," Barry said. "It allows us to identify illegal aliens in the community who have committed crimes without spending any Fairfax County taxpayer money."
Nationally, the program is available in 686 jurisdictions in 33 states. Several county police departments in Northern Virginia and Maryland participate in the program, as does the District. According to ICE, it plans to expand Secure Communities to all 50 states by 2013.
Barry said since the Secure Communities program was implemented locally in March 2009, 863 people have been identified for deportation. About half have been deported, he said.
"People identified for deportation have to have committed what are termed Class I offenses," Barry said during the forum. "These are offenses such as murder, rape, robbery and drug distribution."
After being asked by a lawyer said to represent people who were served ICE detainers for non-Class 1 offenses, Barry offered a further explanation.
"As I said earlier, ICE is focusing on Class I offenders. However, they have criteria for identifying people and are deporting Class II and III offenders," he said. "We would honor any federal detainer placed by ICE, regardless of the level of offense."
"I agree that this program is great for removing very dangerous criminals," said John Liss, director of the Virginia New Majority, an Alexandria-based political action group with ties to labor unions that takes up many immigrant causes. "But the truth is that Secure Communities is not being used exclusively for that purpose. If someone is deported, relationships and families can be torn apart for an offense potentially as innocuous as jaywalking. It is a grossly disproportional punishment that massively impacts our sense of community in Northern Virginia."
According to ICE statistics, about 22 percent of suspects detained by the Secure Communities program nationwide were deemed Class I offenders. Since partnering with county municipalities two years ago, 64,000 individuals -14,000 of whom were convicted of a Class I offense - have been deported, according to an Oct. 4 Secure Communities operability report compiled by ICE.
Arlington County, which is in the process of withdrawing from the program, share's Liss' sentiment.
"The manner in which Secure Communities has been implemented creates an unnecessary and dangerous fear of local law enforcement in our immigrant community," wrote Arlington County Manager Barbara M. Donnellan in an October letter to ICE Director John Morton. "Contrary to its intent, Secure Communities potentially makes our community less safe by creating divisions within our community that hinder our successful community policing practices."
Fairfax County Sheriff's spokesman Sonny Cachuela disagrees with that assessment.
"There are no community divisions being created with this program," Cachuela said Dec. 2. "We are not going out into the community seeking illegal aliens. No one is sought out, and no one is fingerprinted other than criminals processed into our jail."
On the other side of the issue is the sentiment that illegal immigrants should be actively pursued, and Secure Communities is not proactive in that approach.
Unlike the more aggressive 287(g) federal program, which allows local law enforcement to uphold federal immigration laws, Secure Communities does not give Fairfax County sheriff's deputies that authority.
"We are not authorized to enforce immigration laws," Barry said.
"How can a sheriff [who has taken] an oath to enforce the law say publicly he will not enforce our immigration laws?"Guy Mullinax of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation said during the online forum.
Herndon is the only jurisdiction in Fairfax County that participates in 287(g). In November 2009, the Herndon Town Council voted to expand the federal powers given to town police.
Previously, immigration status checks performed by Herndon police were limited to people detained for driving under the influence and other serious felonies. Under the 2009 expansion, those restrictions were removed. Now anyone detained within the town can have their immigration status checked.
From January to October, Herndon police initiated 104 immigration status investigations, which resulted in 54 "detainer" for deportation requests issued by ICE. Prince William and Loudoun counties and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park also partner with ICE in 287(g).
The federal program "287(g) works because it is proactive," said former Herndon Town Council member Charlie Waddell, a program advocate who voted to give town police expanded federal powers. "Secure Communities only works once someone has been caught for some other crime and brought to the county jail. The two programs complement each other, but I believe that Secure Communities without 287(g) is not nearly as effective. To my knowledge, no community rift exists in Herndon as a result of either program, but I know a lot of bad guys are off our streets."