Politics & Government

Jail booking centers linked to immigration data base

Federal immigration officials now have the ability to identify potentially deportable foreign nationals booked into Florida county jails on suspicion of crimes.

Michael W. Meade, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office director in Miami, announced Tuesday that booking centers in all 67 Florida counties are now linked to ICE’s biometric databases for quicker identification of immigration records.

Meade’s disclosure marks an expansion in Florida of ICE’s Secure Communities initiative, a controversial program the agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deems vital to its efforts to quickly identify foreign nationals who have been convicted or charged.

“This capability means local law enforcement and ICE are automatically alerted when potentially deportable criminal aliens come into state and local custody,” Meade told a news conference at ICE’s office in Doral.

Immigrant-rights activists expressed concern.

“If this program were really targeting hardened criminals and making us safer, as ICE claims, I imagine most everyone would support it,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, long a critic of Secure Communities.

“People arrested for any reason, including traffic violations and loitering, are caught in ICE’s net — including U.S. citizens.”

Under President Barack Obama, ICE has reconfigured its stated immigration enforcement priority, ostensibly targeting foreign nationals convicted of crimes committed in the United States.

Previously, immigration authorities detained and deported criminal and criminal immigrants without distinction.

Critics insist that though ICE has changed its rhetoric, it continues to deport noncriminal immigrants in large numbers. ICE officials acknowledge that though they are still deporting noncriminals, they are “low priority’’ compared to those with criminal records.

ICE figures show a downward trend in the number of noncriminal immigrants deported in the eight-month period between Oct. 1, 2009, and June 7. During that time, 113,453 foreign nationals with criminal records were deported compared to 113,710 noncriminals.

During the 12-month period from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2009, far more noncriminal immigrants were deported than criminals: 251,664 noncriminals compared to 136,126 criminals.

ICE officials say the figures are evidence that they are now focusing primarily on criminal foreign nationals.

With Secure Communities, ICE officials are confident they can more quickly focus their resources on identifying foreign nationals booked into local jails on suspicion of a crime.

In pre-Homeland Security days, many booked in local jails escaped immigration detection because computers generally were not linked to immigration computers. Under Secure Communities, booking centers can submit a suspect’s digitized fingerprints to a Homeland Security database, which then matches the fingerprints to immigration records.

Meade said that if the foreign national is a legal permanent resident with a green card, immigration officials generally would not place a detainer on the person or start deportation proceedings until he or she is convicted.

But if the fingerprints belong to an undocumented foreign national picked up on a warrant for a serious crime, then an immediate detainer would be issued. That way, Meade said, the foreign national would not be released back into the community.