Under ‘Secure Communities,’ all fingerprints would go in database

WASHINGTON – Facing pressure from both the left and right to address illegal immigration, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter is considering whether to join a controversial federal information-sharing program.

Secure Communities is a fingerprint database aimed at identifying and deporting the most violent immigrants who managed to remain under the radar. When a person is arrested and brought to a police station, his or her fingerprints are cross-checked through the system against Department of Homeland Security immigration and FBI criminal records.

Ritter convened a task force on illegal immigration that recommended Colorado cities participate in a federal pilot program of Secure Communities. The state would be a partner because its computers would be the link to federal databases. The counties of Denver, El Paso and Arapahoe expressed interest in joining.

If Ritter signs the state up, in theory all Colorado law-enforcement jurisdictions are required to participate. But local jurisdictions also can work with the state to negotiate modifications or delays.

The governor met twice in June with opponents of the program, and he is still considering whether to participate, said his spokesman, Evan Dreyer.

“He hasn’t said when he’ll make a final decision,” he said. “There’s no timeline on it.”

The program, run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, streamlines a process that used to take days and combines what once was several nonintegrated database systems. Within a matter of hours, police can see if a person has had previous contact with immigration officials.

But critics, including some state law-enforcement officials, say they are worried the program will lead to racial profiling and an erosion of trust between the police and the immigrant community.

Because fingerprints automatically are run through the system when someone is arrested and brought to the police station, immigrant activists also are concerned that people who were arrested and later dismissed, or those who face minor violations, could still be subject to deportation.

“The real issue is what role – if any – does the Constitution contemplate state and local governments play in the regulation of immigration,” said Clare Huntington, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado-Boulder who specializes in immigration. “And there, it’s not all clear.”

ICE categorizes criminal offenses into three levels. Level 1 includes such felonies as rape and murder; Level 2 includes lesser felonies like extortion and/or property crime; Level 3 includes up to three misdemeanors like drug offenses or disorderly conduct. The agency prioritizes people for deportation who have committed Level 1 crimes.

“We question how (ICE is) setting their priorities,” said Michelle Waslin, senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center, which is against Secure Communities. “Are they truly focusing on the most dangerous criminals, or are they also picking up people who have not been convicted of any or a relatively minor crime?”

ICE’s records show that of the nearly 51,000 people who were removed or deported as of late July, only 31,000 – or about 61 percent – committed Level 1 or Level 2 crimes. A quarter of those deported did not have criminal records.

“Nobody is rationally suggesting that we’re going to be able to deport our way out of this situation,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a nonprofit in favor of stricter immigration practices that supports Secure Communities. “But it doesn’t mean that you should not deport people when you identify and detain them.”

By pushing Secure Communities, President Barack Obama is walking a line between responding to a growing political outcry against immigration and not alienating the immigrant community, Huntington said.

“This is all an extraordinary distraction from the real problem, which is we don’t have comprehensive immigration reform,” Huntington said. “This is a very backhanded way of addressing a problem we’re not willing to deal with straight-up.”

The Obama administration expressed the desire to expand the $200 million-a-year program to all jurisdictions by 2013.

ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said the agency is on track to meet the deadline at its current pace. Once a governor signs an agreement to join Secure Communities, law-enforcement jurisdictions are required to participate in the program, he said.

“There’s an entire plan as far as working with the jurisdictions, showing them how the program works, what the program is supposed to do and then implementing the program after they receive that orientation,” Rusnok said.

In Washington, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said that while the program isn’t a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, he supports Secure Communities as long as Colorado “(does) it right.”

“There are no trouble-free solutions, but we should continually be looking at ways to protect against misuse of Secure Communities or any program,” Udall said. “This program is one of the better, more efficient federal tools we have to help apprehend dangerous people who are also here illegally.”

Throughout the program’s less than two-year history, more than 3.2 million fingerprints have been submitted, and as of Aug. 10, 544 jurisdictions in 27 states use the database.

Herald Staff Writer Joe Hanel contributed to this report.