"Secure Communities," a Controversial Immigration Enforcement Program, Reels in Six Washington State Counties

Last week, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn told the federal government his state was backing out of the immigration-enforcement program known as "Secure Communities." The program, pitched as a way to kick criminals out of the country, allows the feds to run fingerprints gathered during local arrests through an immigration database. Quinn, one of a growing number of state officials who are resisting the program, says it is deporting scores of immigrants who were never convicted. Yet six counties in Washington state are just now opting in.

In the last couple months, Yakima, Lewis, Franklin, Grays Harbor, Pacific, and Island counties have all told the Washington State Patrol that they would like the agency to forward fingerprints from their jails to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to patrol spokesperson Bob Calkins.

The patrol will do just that, even though Washington is often cited as one of the few states that has refused to go along with Secure Communities. That was the impression left when the patrol, which collects fingerprints from agencies around the state, last year told the feds that it could not simply hand over that data to ICE.

"The fingerprints don't belong to us," Calkins says, citing county and city law-enforcement officials as the true owners. He adds, however, that the patrol has said all along that it would share fingerprints from any county or city that so requested.

Why are the counties jumping in only now? Ann Benson, director of the Washington Defender Association's Immigration Project, says she suspects it's because the politics of Secure Communities is starting to heat up now that other immigration initiatives--like comprehensive reform--failed in Congress.

Benson says she's part of a coalition of local immigration advocates who are trying to figure out a response. Part of what troubles her, she says, is that the decisions are "not a public process." She adds that she doesn't even know "who gets to decide" whether or not a county or city will participate in Secure Communities.

According to the patrol's Calkins, county sheriffs and municipal police chiefs call the shots on fingerprints--at least for now. The feds late last week told Illinois that it cannot withdraw from Secure Communities, fueling a debate on whether the program is really voluntary, as the feds initially indicated. Says Calkins: "If it was mandatory, why were we asked to sign on?"

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