How to improve an immigration status check

Sunday, March 20, 2011; 9:52 PM

AFTER MAKING an arrest, a law enforcement agency typically runs a suspect's name through a national database to check if he is wanted for another crime or in another jurisdiction. Makes sense. So why are states and municipalities balking at checking an alleged offender's immigration status through the federal Secure Communities program?

Secure Communities was started during the Bush administration and expanded under President Obama as a means to help law enforcers determine whether arrestees are wanted for immigration violations. Some 1,000 jurisdictions in 38 states use the program. Some, including the District, have resisted, arguing that the program could lead to racial and ethnic profiling and scare immigrants from cooperating with police.

Those concerns are legitimate when it comes to a federal program that deputizes local officers to be immigration snoops; that would pave the way for officials to harass those whose only offense is that they look foreign-born.

Secure Communities is something else. It authorizes an immigration check only if someone has been charged. Even then, confirmation of illegal status rightly does not automatically trigger deportation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focuses on those with convictions for serious felonies including violent crimes; it has neither inclination nor resources to deport suspects with otherwise clean records who have been arrested for low-level infractions.

But while making sense in concept, the program has problems in its current form. The Secure Communities database contains only digitized fingerprints taken after 2005. Old-fashioned ink fingerprints are not routinely part of the database, and in some cases individuals who should have at least been given a second look have been released. In one example, an undocumented immigrant sneaked back into the country after being deported in 2003. Because the database did not flag the deportation, the man, believed to be part of the notorious MS-13 gang, was released after spending the night in jail for public drunkenness. He is accused of raping an 8-year-old Fairfax County girl after leaving police custody.

ICE officials say they have redoubled their efforts to make the database comprehensive and to implement other improvements. The efficiency and efficacy of Secure Communities should be probed in congressional hearings, and the agency should be given a realistic but aggressive deadline for fully integrating the database.

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