Disparities in deportation program raise questions

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Despite vows by the Obama administration to focus its immigration enforcement efforts on criminals, a quarter of those who have been deported through a program called Secure Communities had not been convicted of committing any crime, government statistics show. And that percentage was vastly higher in some jurisdictions, including Prince George's County, where two-thirds of the 86 undocumented immigrants were not criminals.

The Prince George's rate of noncriminal deportation was the second-highest in the country among counties or cities with at least 50 removals, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures through the end of July, the latest numbers made available.

By comparison, 15 percent of the 105 immigrants removed from Prince William County, which has taken a much tougher stance toward illegal immigrants than Prince George's, were not criminals. Even Maricopa County in Arizona - home to Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" - deported noncriminals at a rate of less than half that of Prince George's.

The disparities have left local authorities puzzled and immigrant rights activists outraged.

Immigration officials declined to explain the disparities but defended Secure Communities, which is becoming the nation's central immigration enforcement mechanism.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently credited the program with helping to produce a more than 70 percent increase in deportations of criminals, including gang members, murderers and drug traffickers.

"Secure Communities has resulted in the arrest of more than 59,000 convicted criminal aliens, including more than 21,000 convicted of major violent offenses like murder, rape, and the sexual abuse of children," Napolitano said.

Immigration rights groups say the program has led to the removal of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have committed far less serious crimes or none at all.

"The numbers out of Prince George's are absurd," said Gustavo Andrade, organizing director of CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group that is active in the county. "Even one family destroyed because of this kind of program makes it unacceptable."

John Erzen, a spokesman for the Prince George's Department of Corrections, and Maj. Andrew Ellis, a county police spokesman, said they were not aware of any police or jail practices that could explain the numbers. They said that federal authorities decide whom to detain and deport through Secure Communities, which will soon be operating across the country.

The program uses fingerprints collected by local authorities when people are charged with anything from a traffic violation to murder. After the prints are run through a federal database, anyone found to be in the United States illegally can be ordered detained while federal authorities initiate deportation proceedings.

Criminals, noncriminals

Launched by the George W. Bush administration and expanded dramatically by the Obama administration, Secure Communities is primarily designed to target and deport violent criminals. But it also identifies visa violators, fugitives and those who have crossed the border illegally before.

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