By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; B01
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.
Beth Gibson, assistant deputy director of ICE, said that some of those listed as noncriminals may have been removed before legal proceedings were completed against them. A person charged with assault and fingerprinted by police, for example, may have been released on bail on the criminal charge and then detained by ICE and deported on immigration charges before the criminal charge was fully prosecuted, she said.
(Although being in the country without papers can sometimes be a crime - especially when the person is a repeat offender - undocumented immigration is usually an administrative violation.)
Brian Hale, an ICE spokesman, said that some of the people listed as noncriminals may have previously entered the country illegally, which is a federal felony if charges are successfully pressed, or may have been fugitives. As an example, he cited the jurisdiction with the country's highest rate of noncriminal deportation: Jefferson Parish in Louisiana.
Fifty-three of the 146 noncriminal immigrants removed from the parish "were illegal reentrants or fugitives," Hale said in an e-mail. "Other aliens, even if not illegal reentrants or fugitives, may have a lengthy immigration history or have been encountered multiple times at the border."
Gibson and Hale said that the agency has a mandate to remove people who are in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have been found guilty of a crime.
"Our prioritization of criminals and fugitives does not amount to a de facto amnesty for people who are not criminals and fugitives," Gibson said.Politics of enforcement
The Obama administration has sought to demonstrate that it is serious about enforcement even as it has pushed for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws. But reform has stalled despite a record number of deportations over the past two years.
On Saturday, a measure that would have created a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children died in the Senate, with opponents calling it backdoor amnesty for lawbreakers.
Deporting nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants has failed to satisfy Obama's critics, who say they don't think he has been tough enough in going after the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. At the same time, the stepped-up enforcement has alienated some Latino voters and their advocates.
A senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly said that Secure Communities has removed a large number of illegal immigrants who were not violent threats to public safety. The official also said that the program's priorities are in the right place and that the percentage of violent and dangerous criminals being removed would continue to climb.
Until a few months ago, the government was reporting an even higher number of noncriminal deportations through Secure Communities than current figures.
Statistics through the end of April show that 45 percent of the undocumented immigrants deported via the program had not been convicted of any crime.
After the deportations had been completed, a manual audit of the cases found that many people listed as noncriminals had criminal histories, Hale said.
As a result, the number of noncriminal deportations through July 31 dropped across the country. In Maricopa County, the deportation rate for noncriminals fell from 54 percent through April to 32 percent through July. In San Diego, the numbers fell from 63 to 21 percent.
The number of noncriminals removed from Prince George's was initially listed as 74 percent but dropped to 67 percent.
"Do we trust the July numbers, the April numbers or neither?" asked Bridget Kessler, a clinical teaching fellow at the Cardozo Law School Immigration Justice Clinic in New York, which is suing ICE for information about the Secure Communities program on behalf of an immigrant rights group known as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "The program isn't doing what ICE had said it was meant to do."