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The Crackdown

Dozens of Texas border counties now check the immigration status of anyone who ends up in jail, removing thousands of criminal suspects from the country. But detainees are also being deported for minor infractions — including some who are never formally charged.

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Mention immigration in Texas and hardliners will grouse about a federal “open door” policy that results in a porous border, welcoming freeloaders and criminals. But dozens of Texas counties eagerly participate in a federal program called Secure Communities, which aims to ferret out criminal aliens and expedite their removal from the U.S.

Twelve more counties in South Texas joined the program last week, bringing the total to 66 in less than two years since the program’s inception here. Run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the program allows local law enforcement to compare the fingerprints of anyone arrested against those in a Department of Homeland Security database to determine if the individual is removable under immigration laws.

On the surface, the effort targets a rare common goal of progressive and conservative elements embroiled in the current immigration debate: the deportation of aliens who entered the country — legally or illegally — and have committed serious crimes. Immigrant advocacy groups claim, however, that immigrants are detained for minor infractions, sometimes never formally charged with a crime and are thrust in to the immigration detention system.

In a policy statement on the program, ICE maintains that it prioritizes serious criminals: “By assessing the risk each criminal alien poses to the public, ICE focuses immigration enforcement on the most dangerous criminal aliens first.” The most “dangerous criminal aliens” are categorized as level 1 offenders and have been convicted of or charged with homicide, kidnapping, assault, robbery, sex offenses and narcotics crimes that carry a sentence of greater than one year. Level 2 offenses include property crimes and minor drug violations. Level 3 offenses include driving while intoxicated and public disturbances.

Since Texas joined the program in October 2008, it has submitted 494,445 sets of fingerprints to DHS for tracing, leading to 10,837 aliens being arrested or booked into ICE custody. According to the most recent ICE statistics, 8,596 have been deported. Of those, just 2,113 — fewer than 25 percent — were convicted of level 1 offenses, compared to 5,147, or 60 percent, who were convicted or charged with level 2 offenses.

The numbers prove ICE strays from its mission to home in on immigrants who pose the highest danger, says Lauren Martin, a scholar in residence with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based advocacy and research group.

“Should citizen children lose parents over infractions that are this minor?” she asked. “I think a lot of people are pointing out that just deporting people for minor offenses flies in the face of the principle of proportionality that is supposed to govern the criminal justice system."

But ICE officials defend the program, arguing that, according to the agency's mission, it has the ability to begin removal proceedings on any alien in the country illegally.

“ICE's mission is to protect the security of the American people by vigilantly enforcing the nation's immigration and customs laws. As such, ICE has the authority to take enforcement action toward any alien subject to removal,” said Adelina Pruneda, the ICE spokeswoman for its regional office in San Antonio.

ICE also fends off allegations of racial profiling by hammering home the point that all individuals, regardless of race, appearance or ethnicity, have their fingerprints submitted, not only through the DHS database, but also through the FBI database. Nationally, Pruneda said, the program has yielded 24,712 matches of aliens charged with or convicted of level 1 offense, 6,000 of which have already been removed.

Though all inmates are checked, some advocates believe police officers go out of their way to bust suspected immigrants for trumped-up offenses — as a pretext to check their citizenship status once arrested. “There is a concern that police officers working in areas that have secure communities in their local jails may have an incentive, or at least the ability, to make arrests based on race or ethnicity, or to make pretextual arrests of persons they suspect to be in violation of immigration laws, in order to have them run through immigration databases once they are jailed,” according to a 2009 by the Immigration Policy Center on the Secure Communities program and a similar effort, the Criminal Alien Program. The latter focuses on the deportation of aliens already incarcerated in federal, state and local facilities; it identifies them and secures a removal order prior to their release.

Concerns have also been raised about the policy’s effect on local government budgets. Once an alien is charged, fingerprinted and held under a detainer, it is ICE’s responsibility to transport the individual into its custody. Martin has found the process isn’t always expedited, which has consequences for local entities.

“The costs for that for those beds are borne by the county jails, and not by ICE, so that’s sort of a public safety issue for the law-and-order crowd,” she said. “And the percentage of people that end up in county jails are not by and large are not the most violent.”

Pruneda said some counties are reimbursed while others are not and that a detainee’s time in a local jail could vary. ICE reimbursements are decided on a “case-by-case” basis, she said.

A study by the Community Engagement Center at the University of Texas at Austin found that taxpayers shelled out more than $1.3 million dollars in Travis County alone to house detainees in fiscal year 2008 under the Criminal Alien Program. The study also warned that the policy jeopardizes the public trust in law enforcement. “If these programs encourage the immigrant community to view law enforcement as a mere extension of ‘la migra’ (immigration officers)," its authors noted, “then the public at large will be forced to address how this breakdown of trust in the police can undermine public safety for everyone.” 

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