MIAMI — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has touted an 18-month-old program under which county jails forward suspects’ fingerprints to Homeland Security as a key tool in quickly identifying dangerous foreign criminals.
But internal ICE documents released Tuesday by immigrant and civil rights activists contradict the agency’s claim, according to an analysis of the documents by the advocates that include the respected Center for Constitutional Rights and the immigration justice clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, both in New York City.
Release of the documents is the latest salvo by immigrant rights advocates who believe ICE has become a rogue agency bent on undermining civil rights and President Obama’s stated policy of focusing on dangerous foreign criminals first. The documents outline the work of the ICE booking center program known as Secure Communities.
Suspects booked at a county jail linked to the program have their fingerprints shared with several agencies, including Homeland Security.
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If ICE, a Homeland Security agency, is interested in one of the foreign suspects, it lodges an immigration “detainer” or hold so the suspect cannot be immediately released.
The rapidly expanding illegal immigration enforcement program has led to the deportation of nearly 47,000 people nationwide, ICE statistics show.
Of the 3,268, in Florida, 2,459 didn’t have a criminal background.
What about Manatee?
The number of those deported during the last 18 months from Manatee County was not available Wednesday, but eight illegal immigrants were being held in the local jail.
Of those eight inmates with INS holds, all were behind bars on felony charges, said Manatee County jail spokesman Randy Warren.
Often, it’s difficult to identify every illegal inmate because, Warren said, many of them give aliases and false IDs when booked. For example, some carry around another person’s social security card.
“Some slip through the cracks, but eventually INS will catch up with them ... run cross checks through their database that we don’t have access to,” Warren said.
Before Secure Communities, immigration authorities relied on jail officials to alert them about foreign nationals in local jails or periodically checked local jail records themselves.
ICE says Secure Communities assists the agency in quickly identifying dangerous foreign criminals so they can be placed in deportation proceedings before being released on bail or their own recognizance.
The agency did not dispute the activists’s findings. But ICE reiterated its belief that Secure Communities is crucial to shielding U.S. communities from dangerous foreign criminals.
“Secure Communities gives ICE the ability to work with our state and local law enforcement partners to identify criminal aliens who are already in their custody, expediting their removal and keeping our communities safer, part of the Department’s overall focus on identifying and removing convicted criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety,” said ICE spokesman Temple Black.
To date, he added, the program has identified more than 262,900 foreign nationals in jails and prisons who have been charged with or convicted of criminal offenses, including more than 39,000 charged with or convicted of major violent or drug offenses. Black said the program led to the deportation of more than 34,600 convicted criminal foreigners, including more than 9,800 convicted of major violent or drug offenses.
The analysis of the documents by the activists, however, says that the majority or 79 percent of people deported in connection to Secure Communities were noncriminals or had been picked up by local police for relatively minor offenses, including traffic violations or petty juvenile mischief.
The activists’s analysis also contained a county-by-county breakdown on the number of foreign nationals identified through Secure Communities and subsequently deported.
In Florida, Miami-Dade, Broward, St. Lucie and Hillsborough are among counties nationwide with the highest number of immigrants with no criminal backgrounds deported due to Secure Communities since the program began, the analysis said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that her intention is to deploy Secure Communities in all “law enforcement jurisdictions’’ in the country by 2013.
Napolitano spoke as she announced that Secure Communities has just been deployed to all 25 U.S. counties along the Southwest border.
She added that Secure Communities has grown from only 14 jurisdictions at the beginning to 544 today. ICE announced June 29 that all 67 counties in Florida are now linked to Secure Communities.
Staff writer Natalie Neysa Alund contributed to this report.