The controversial Secure Communities initiative, aimed at deporting criminal aliens but criticized for removing mostly minor offenders of lesser crimes, may undergo considerable changes, according to the director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Through the program, administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local law enforcement compares the fingerprints of those arrested to a federal database to determine if the individual is eligible for deportation under current federal immigration laws. Gov. Rick Perry added expanding the program to the “call” for the special session earlier this month.

ICE Director John Morton announced today the agency would look into recent complaints that the system actually erodes safety by preventing witnesses or victims of crime from contacting law enforcement for fear of deportation. New guidelines outlining how prosecutorial discretion should be used when dealing with this segment of the immigrant population will be issued, Morton said.

“This policy directs ICE officers to exercise appropriate discretion to ensure victims and witnesses to crimes are not penalized by removal,” ICE public affairs specialist Nicole Navas said in a statement. “ICE is also working to develop additional tools that will help identify people who may be a victim, witness, or member of a vulnerable class so officers can exercise appropriate discretion.”

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The agency will also create a new detainer form for local agencies that emphasizes an individual should be held for no more than 48 hours. It also plans to develop an advisory committee of immigration advocates, law enforcement officers and attorneys to determine how to proceed with immigrants arrested for minor infractions, including traffic violations.

The change comes as four states — California, Massachusetts, Illinois and New York — have left or are considering abandoning the program. It is currently in place in every Texas county jail, but a provision in SB 9, by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would expand it to every detention and holding center in Texas, closing what Williams calls a “loophole” that allows arrested illegal immigrants held in municipal jails to post bond.

Advocacy groups wasted no time in calling the proposed changes little more than cosmetic, saying they fail to go far enough to provide true reform.

“These changes are nowhere near sufficient to address the well-documented problems with the Secure Communities program that has thus far torn apart countless families across the country by funneling people into a detention and deportation system rife with abuse,” said Andrea Black, the executive director of Detention Watch Network. “The flaws with Secure Communities run so deep that the only solution is termination of the program.”

The group also maintains that local and state governments should be allowed to opt out of the program, which was initially pitched by the government as voluntary.

Since the program was launched in Texas in 2008, there have been about 1,238,600-fingerprint submissions. They have resulted in about 6,725 removals of immigrants who have been convicted of Level 1 offenses (aggravated felonies or two or more felonies), 4,464 deportations of immigrants with Level 2 offenses (any felony or three or more misdemeanors) and 10,252 deportations of those with Level 3 offenses (offenses punishable by less than a year in detention). There have also been 5,726 removals of noncriminal immigration violators, which range from entering the country illegally to overstaying a visa. ICE officials, however, clarify that “noncriminal removals” also includes “pre-conviction arrestees.”

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SB 9 also contains the controversial “sanctuary cities” legislation championed by the GOP and Perry, who insist the measure is necessary for public safety. The legislation would deny state grant funds to entities that enact policies that prohibit law enforcement from inquiring into the immigration status of someone detained or arrested. Opponents denounce the legislation as nothing more than a throwback to the era of Jim Crow laws that will promote racial profiling. They maintain that, like Secure Communities, the sanctuary cities legislation will hinder public safety.

During the floor debate, Democratic senators tried to amend the bill to exempt victims of or witnesses to crimes. They failed on a party-line vote.

SB 9 is scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, the same day several advocacy groups plan to protest SB 9 and Secure Communities at the state Capitol.

"At a time when our schools and our parks are closing, we should not be spending billions of dollars to detain and deport people in our communities," said Carmen Llanes of Texans United for Families.

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