Insecure Sanctuary

A controversial fingerprinting program might have quietly ended local protection of immigrants

The collaboration between federal ICE and local police is troubling immigrant rights advocates.

The Board of Supervisors is urging San Francisco officials not to participate in Secure Communities, a controversial federal-local fingerprinting collaboration set to be activated June 1. But opting out of a program that threatens to make debates over "sanctuary city" protections of immigrants irrelevant may not be easy.

Speaking at a May 18 rally, Sup. Eric Mar warned that the use of Secure Communities by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could cause the deportation of innocent residents and destroy local community policing efforts. "The police-ICE entanglement will hurt our communities and many people accused of minor crimes will see families torn apart," Mar warned, as he urged the city to opt out of the Department of Homeland Security initiative, which identifies immigrants who are sitting in U.S. jails and may be deportable under federal immigration laws.

Cosponsored by Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, David Chiu, Chris Daly, Bevan Dufty, Sophie Maxwell, and Ross Mirkarimi, Mar's resolution was scheduled for a May 25 vote that would make San Francisco the first jurisdiction in the nation to pursue withdrawing from the system.

"The shadow of Arizona is starting to cover other cities," Mar said, referring to Arizona's anti-immigrant legislation, SB 1070. "We can't let Arizona come to San Francisco."

ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice said the program's focus is on criminal aliens. "These are folks who have been charged with or found guilty of felonies and have ignored deportation orders," Kice said.

But ICE statistics show that the program mostly deports those with minor offenses. Between October 2008 and March 2010, Secure Communities submitted 1.9 million sets of digital fingerprints and deported 33,326 people nationwide. Fifteen percent of those deported (4,903 people) had criminal histories that included major drug and violent offenses such as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and kidnapping (Level 1 crimes). The other 85 percent (28,423 people) were deported for less serious drug and property offenses (Level 2 crimes) and other minor charges (Level 3 crimes).

Kice admits that Level 2 and 3 offenders constitute the largest percentage of SC cases. "That's because representatively more people are arrested for Level 2 and 3 offenses than Level 1," she said. "That's probably fortunate, because Level 1 crimes are very serious."

But American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Joanne Lin warns that Secure Communities allows the federal government to circumvent local sanctuary policies and fast-track deportation. "It allows the Department of Homeland Security to identifty everyone who is booked, whether they are here lawfully or their charges are subsequently dropped or dismissed," Lin said.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said he has no reservations about the program, which the Bush administration first announced in March 2008. "Sanctuary city policies were never meant to protect criminal behavior," mayoral spokesperson Tony Winnicker said May 7, when San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey blew the whistle on the federal-local fingerprinting collaboration. "At the end of the day, federal officials should enforce immigration laws. We report — we don't deport."

The program links local law enforcement databases to the Department of Homeland Security's biometric system through interoperability agreements with states, allowing instantaneous information-sharing among local jails, ICE, and the FBI.

ICE implemented the program in North Carolina and Texas in October 2008. Under President Obama, the program has been activated in 169 jurisdictions in 20 states. ICE plans to have a Secure Communities presence in each state by 2011, and in each of the 3,100 state and local jails nationwide by 2013, according to its Web site.