Thursday, April 14, 2011

Deportation program is here to stay, officials say (Gazette)

Deportation program is here to stay, officials say
Despite concerns, Prince George's is unable to opt out of Secure Communities initiative
by Daniel Valentine and Andrea Noble | Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said he has concerns about a controversial program that has led to the deportation of more than 200 people in the county since late 2009, but explained that he is powerless to stop it.

"There are no options. This is it. We have to follow the law as it is given to us," said Baker, referring to the Secure Communities program, in which police automatically scan and share the fingerprints of anyone brought to the county jail.

The database is sent to the FBI and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, who check to see if the person is wanted for a federal crime or listed as an illegal immigrant. If they are found to be in the country illegally, the person is turned over to ICE officials and can be deported.

According to ICE, 223 people arrested in Prince George's were deported from the time the program started on Dec. 22, 2009, to February 2011. Of those, about 145 people — 65 percent — had no criminal record and the reasons they were brought to jail were too minor for the county to pursue, said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for ICE.

While more populated jurisdictions in other states deported more people, Prince George's ranks second in the U.S. behind Jefferson Parish in Louisiana when it comes to deporting non-criminals, according to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a Los Angeles-based group that opposes the program. In Jefferson Parish, a suburban county near New Orleans, about 72 percent of its deportees had no criminal convictions.

About 28 percent of the people deported nationwide since Secure Communities started in 2008 had no criminal record, according to the NDLON report, which cites statistics provided by federal officials.

At the time Secure Communities was launched in Prince George's under former County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), officials touted the program as a way to catch potential terrorists and criminals.

Gustavo Andrade of Casa of Maryland, a local advocacy group for the Latino and immigrant community, says the majority of those deported in the program are no general danger to the public.

"It's created an incredibly high level of fear in the community," said Andrade, who said many deportees were picked up for misdemeanors such as loitering or driving without a license. "They are criminalizing behavior that poses no threat to the county and giving support to rogue officers who'd like to do [ICE's] job."

Baker said he worries the program makes illegal immigrants less likely to seek police help or provide information on criminal activity.

"It's a concern. It could have a chilling effect on the Latino community," said Baker, who said he does not support the program. "But at this point, we have to follow the law as it is."

Once a county enters into the Secure Communities program, they are not able to opt out, Baker and Feinstein said.

County officials have said the county receives no money for participating in Secure Communities, though it does save some costs of jailing people flagged by ICE, who take custody of illegal immigrants detected by the fingerprint scans.

The program has brought benefits to law enforcement as well by quickly notifying police if a suspect is wanted on federal charges, said Kerry Watson, a former county police officer and Baker's public safety adviser.

"That's how you get hits on other crimes, other warrants that are out there," said Watson, who added that he is trying to meet with Casa given the possible negative impact of the program. "It's absolutely a concern of Mr. Baker's."

Police have brought in 25,749 people to the county jail and scanned their fingerprints since the 2009 start, according to ICE data.

Of the foreign suspects flagged by ICE and deported from Prince George's County, 26 people were convicted of felonies such as murder, rape, robbery, major drug offenses and national security crimes, according to data from Feinstein. Thirteen deportees were convicted of minor drug or property offenses, and 39 deportees had unspecified prior convictions.

Prince George's was the first county in Maryland to opt in to the Secure Communities program, which now operates in 21 of the state's 23 counties, according to ICE documents. In western Maryland, Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties started Secure Communities this week. ICE plans to have the system running nationwide by 2013.

Participation is mandatory in the program, according to Feinstein. Counties are selected by ICE for Secure Communities, though jurisdictions can ask to be considered for the program before they are selected to join, Feinstein said. Once they start, participating counties are not allowed to stop sending the information to ICE, he said.

In neighboring Montgomery County, police do not currently participate in Secure Communities. Officers instead provide weekly reports of convicted violent offenders and people involved in gun-related offenses to the federal government for potential flagging, as well as keep a database of foreign-born detainees at the county jail, said Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett (D).

The county intends to adopt Secure Communities eventually, Lacefield said.

"We've had discussions," he said. "We've said at whatever point if they are ready to proceed, we will acquiesce."

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