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The ICE program with the reassuring name "Secure Communities" took effect Tuesday in all 39 Washington counties, despite objections from activist groups claiming the effort

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'Insecure Communities': The ICE Program to Fingerprint Illegal Aliens Comes to Washington, Despite Cost and Public-Safety Concerns

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The ICE program with the reassuring name "Secure Communities" took effect Tuesday in all 39 Washington counties, despite objections from activist groups claiming the effort to fingerprint and deport undocumented immigrants erodes community trust in law enforcement, costs taxpayers money, and disproportionally targets individuals who are only guilty of traffic violations or other minor offenses.

Secure Communities was originally introduced in 2008 by ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) and promoted as a way to rid the country of felonious illegal immigrants -- people with previous convictions for serious crimes like murder, rape, robbery, etc. It's supposed to work like this: When people are booked into local jails, their fingerprints are submitted to an FBI database, which ICE then cross-references with their own records to check for previous immigration violations.

If an offender pings in the system, ICE will ask the local authorities to detain the inmate until their agents arrive to transport the offender to a federal detention center, where he or she will likely face deportation. A similar initiative called the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) has been in place since the '80s, but that system gives ICE agents access only to jail-inmate rosters. The fingerprinting is intended to keep people from slipping through the cracks.

Initially, local law-enforcement agencies were allowed to "opt in" to the Secure Communities program. A handful of Washington counties volunteered to take part, including Yakima, Franklin, and Benton Counties -- all areas with large Latino populations. The Washington State Patrol resisted statewide implementation of the program, following the lead of New York, Massachusetts, California, and other states. ICE had already planned to roll out the program nationally next year, but last week the agency abruptly announced that participation in Secure Communities would be mandatory statewide, starting in five days.

The move has drawn sharp criticism from legal advocacy and immigrant-rights groups, both of which point to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security (see PDF below) as proof that the vast majority (nearly 80 percent) of people deported through Secure Communities have either never been convicted of a crime or are only guilty of minor offenses.

"I call it the insecure communities program," says Ann Benson, directing attorney of the Washington Defender Association. "It's costing us money, it's not making us safer, it's contributing to racial profiling, and it's undermining the criminal-justice system. Those are things I see daily working with criminal prosecutors and courts."

In Washington, data from the six counties that opted in to Secure Communities over the past three years shows that 84 percent of those deported through the program either had no criminal conviction (25%) or were charged or convicted with Level 2 or 3 offenses (59%), non-felonies that include speeding tickets and other traffic infractions. That, says Toby Guevin, the senior policy and legislative manager at Seattle-based immigrant rights group OneAmerica, has made Latino community members less likely to call the police when something bad happens. (Click to read our previous story about the impact of Secure Communities on domestic-violence victims in Yakima.)

"Secure Communities is a broad dragnet that catches everybody," Guevin says. "Regardless of what your crime is or why you've been brought in, you're fingerprinted. As a result, witnesses of crimes or victims of crime are really hesitant to call the police."

In addition to breeding mistrust, Benson says Washington taxpayers are usually forced to foot the bill for detaining undocumented immigrants while ICE processes their fingerprints and sends agents to transfer offenders to federal facilities. ICE can order inmates held for an additional 48 hours beyond the normal period in which an individual must be charged or released, and that time frame does not include weekends--meaning that in some cases a person can be detained for up to five days before facing charges. In some instances the jails are partially reimbursed for the housing costs.

"It's really gumming up the criminal-justice process," Benson says.

According to research from Whitman College, last year 222 people in Washington were deported as a result of Secure Communities. Of those, only 36 (16 percent) had been charged or convicted of an aggravated felony at the time of their booking. A total of 55 people (25 percent) were deported without a criminal conviction.

Spokespersons for the two King County agencies most affected by the changes -- the Sheriff and the Jail -- describe being caught off-guard by ICE's sudden announcement, and still figuring out how the program will impact their work.

"This got kind of thrown at us," says Commander William Hayes of the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. "It sounds like a slightly different version of what they were doing before. It's technology, I guess."

Homeland Security Report on Secure Communities

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