Federal officials are scaling back a program that enlists the aid of local police and sheriff’s offices to identify people who are in the country illegally, in favor of a national program that uses fingerprints collected by the FBI.
U.S. Immigrations Customs and Enforcement officials say the so-called 287(g) program that includes Mecklenburg County will continue at least until the end of the year. But ICE says the program is under review, and that it will no longer train local police under the program or give them the authority to question, investigate and arrest people they suspect are in the country illegally.
The change moves the government away from an approach to immigration enforcement that has been popular among some law enforcement agencies but has drawn fire from civil rights groups, who say it encourages local police and sheriff’s deputies to unfairly target Latinos. The Department of Homeland Security is still reviewing 57 complaints against the Wake County program, and ICE suspended its 287(g) agreement with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office after the U.S. Justice Department found deputies there were exceeding their authority by checking the immigration status of Latinos on the street.
But the fingerprint system, called Secure Communities, has critics as well, who say that both programs don’t serve their primary purpose. The program, started in 2008 and being expanded nationwide next year, was meant to deport serious criminals, but has instead cast a much wider net, said Sejal Zota, a former immigration specialist with the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government and now an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
“More than half the people who were subsequently removed nationwide in 2011 were charged with minor offenses or did not have any criminal history,” Zota said. “Thirty-seven percent were arrested on traffic charges. There is a question of whom this program is targeting?”
Secure Communities allows federal officers to detect illegal immigrants by comparing the fingerprints of those arrested by local police, which are routinely shared with the FBI, with prints in immigration databases. ICE says the system is simply a smarter way to do business.
“The Secure Communities screening process, coupled with federal officers, is more consistent, efficient and cost-effective in identifying and removing criminal and other priority aliens,” said Vincent Picard, a spokesman with ICE’s southern region in Atlanta.
Secure Communities has its roots in the Criminal Alien Program, a federal initiative enacted nearly three decades ago to identify people behind bars who were in the country illegally. That program was replaced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks by 287(g), said Paromita Shah, associate director of the lawyers guild’s National Immigration Project.
Shah said the fingerprint identification system can sift through lots of data in a short period of time, but that poses a problem: It has a 5 percent margin of error that results in some U.S. citizens being among the 30,000 people being held each day in 400 federally authorized jails across the country on immigration charges, she said.
“Secure Communities is the Criminal Alien Program on steroids,” Shah said.
But others say Secure Communities is an improvement over 287(g) and its reliance on local law enforcement officers.
David Blair, spokesman for the watchdog group Fairness Alamance in Burlington, says he knows some Latino advocates vigorously oppose Secure Communities, but he prefers a wait-and-see attitude.
“What’s good about Secure Communities is that it focuses on the removal of criminals out of the country, people who are guilty of felonies and other serious crimes,” said Blair, an advertising executive. “It is under the control of the federal government, which has a greater respect for civil rights law and constitutional protection.”
Under the 287(g) program, the federal government empowered local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law in one of two ways. The one scheduled for elimination next year allowed local officers, trained by ICE, to question and investigate the immigration status of someone before arrest.
The other agreement allowed local officers to check someone’s immigration status only after he or she had been brought to the jail on some other criminal charge.
The program has been patchwork at best. Only 62 local law enforcement agencies enrolled, including sheriff’s departments in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Gaston counties.
Julia Rush, a spokesperson for the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office said its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been extended through Dec. 2012. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t know what will happen after that.
Since the program began in Mecklenburg jail in May, 2006, jail officials have encountered 21,247 people who came to jail and said their country of origin wasn’t the United States. Of those, 12,186 have been placed into immigration proceedings through ICE.
Rush said Sheriff Chipp Bailey is in favor of the program.
“He feels like it’s a good tool to identify and know who’s coming in the jail, what their criminal history is,” she said. “It’s just an additional safety measure.”
Raul Pinto, a racial justice attorney with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the 287(g) program has an “explicit list” of people targeted for removal from the country that includes violent criminals, drug dealers and repeat border crossers.
“But the vast array of people detained are low-level offenders,” Pinto said.
Ron Woodard, director of N.C. Listen, a Cary advocacy group that supports legal immigration, said sneaking into the country illegally is a crime, too. Woodard said he supports both 287(g) and Secure Communities.
“It helps law enforcement determine who they have in custody,” he said.
Woodard said he would also like to see tighter controls on who gets a driver’s license and who is allowed to work legally in this country. Those steps, coupled with Secure Communities, would greatly curb illegal immigration, he said.
“If you can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t get a job, and you may get deported because the police can check a database to see if you are here illegally,” he said. “That will cause people to self-deport.”
Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this story.