Federal immigration program is applied inconsistently in region

By Shankar Vedantam
Sunday, February 27, 2011

When D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier heard about a new federal immigration enforcement program last year, she said it could have prevented eight killings in the city in the previous two years.

But her enthusiasm was tempered by a concern that the program, designed to detect suspects in police custody who are undocumented immigrants, would also ensnare people who had committed minor offenses, prompting immigrants not to report crimes and domestic abuse to police.

Lanier worked behind the scenes last year with federal officials to redesign the program in potentially far-reaching ways, according to recently released internal documents by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

But Lanier's attempt to get the program to focus on serious offenses was stymied when the D.C. Council and community groups expressed reservations about participating in any fashion. Eventually, the city withdrew from the program.

Lanier's efforts offer a glimpse into the myriad ways in which communities in the Washington region and across the nation have grappled with the controversial immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities. The District's experience also reveals how inconsistent federal guidelines have created widespread confusion. Arlington County, for example, was forced to participate in the program against its will. Other jurisdictions, such as the District and Montgomery County, have been given significantly more latitude.

The Secure Communities program grew out of recommendations by the 9/11 Commission and has become a centerpiece of the Obama administration's effort to focus immigration enforcement on criminals.

Under the program, fingerprints routinely collected by local authorities are forwarded to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a status check. If a fingerprint is matched with someone known to be in the country illegally, ICE can order the immigrant's detention as a first step toward deportation.

Initially, federal immigration officials promised many local governments that their participation would be voluntary. But in late 2009 and 2010, the officials modified their assurances. They began telling communities that the only voluntary part of the program was that a jurisdiction could choose not to receive information about why ICE wanted police to detain someone - a relatively minor aspect of the program.

"Because Secure Communities is fundamentally an information-sharing partnership between federal agencies, state and local jurisdictions cannot opt out from the program, though state and local jurisdictions can opt not to receive the results of immigration queries," ICE spokesman Brian Hale said.

Hale said he expected that every jurisdiction in the country would be actively participating in the program by 2013. He credited the program with apprehending more than 59,000 undocumented immigrants who committed crimes, including about 21,000 who had committed serious offenses such as murder, rape and child sexual abuse.

Last fall, the Arlington County Board cited the risk the program posed to community policing efforts and voted not to participate. But federal officials told the county that local jurisdictions cannot decide to opt out.

In Maryland, the situation is more mixed than it is in Virginia, where every jurisdiction in the state is participating in Secure Communities. The program has been activated in more than half of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions, including Prince George's, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, according to ICE. The city of Baltimore is not yet participating in the program.

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