By RYAN GABRIELSON California Watch
The number of people facing deportation because of criminal charges has declined steadily the past three fiscal years, according to data released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Instead, in California and beyond, a growing number are accused only of entering the United States without permission.
The Secure Communities program was implemented in Kern County beginning Sept. 10, 2010, Kern County Sheriff's Cmdr. Russ Albro said Tuesday. The job of sheriff's personnel hasn't changed regarding the booking of inmates, but information on certain inmates now shows up on a database for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Since the program began, about 170 inmates a month in the county have been placed on immigration holds, Albro said.
Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for ICE, could not immediately be reached for comment.
-- The Californian
The Obama administration has pledged to focus its immigration enforcement on "criminal aliens," illegal immigrants who've been convicted or accused of serious crimes. At the front of this effort, ICE has placed the Secure Communities program. The initiative is installing the federal immigration database in every jail in the nation so that when police scan arrestees' fingerprints, a computer checks their residency status.
Critics of the program contend that ICE is conducting a broad sweep, netting people who pose no threat.
All 58 counties in California are connected to the federal database.
In this state last fiscal year, about 15 percent of those ICE moved to deport were accused of a crime beyond an immigration violation, which is a civil offense. That's down from about 20 percent in 2009.
Meanwhile, there was a sharp increase in the number of California immigration court cases spurred by allegations that immigrants entered "without inspection." Fifty-three percent of deportation proceedings in 2011 have been based on that violation, up more than 2,000 cases statewide from the year before.
The share of potential deportees charged with an aggravated felony -- including violent, drug and theft-related crimes -- has remained steady the past five years at 4 percent.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University gathered the data through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In its own report, the organization found that fewer of ICE's deportation cases nationwide involve accused criminals.
The federal agency disputes that contention, with an ICE spokeswoman calling the report "wildly misleading" in a written statement, because the released data does not tell the full story of each case.
Immigration agents are not required to file new criminal charges when someone has been convicted of a crime in the past or has entered the country illegally, Gillian Christensen, the agency spokeswoman, wrote. Therefore, the data might not include a deportee's criminal history, which "triggered the decision to seek the person's removal."
ICE denied the records clearinghouse's request for data on individual deportation cases.
"The records ICE is withholding would show just which ICE programs -- such as Secure Communities or others -- have contributed to fewer alleged criminals being targeted for deportation in court proceedings," the organization's report said.
Secure Communities has been a source of controversy for the administration in the past year, as states attempted to withdraw from the program. ICE has twice announced revisions ostensibly intended to keep immigration enforcement focused on those accused of convicted of serious crimes.
Records obtained by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in March showed that, in several jurisdictions, Secure Communities primarily was catching illegal immigrants with no criminal history.
Chris Newman, legal director for the organization, said the program is evidence that the Obama administration has mixed priorities on immigration enforcement.
"There's a tension between the stated priorities within Secure Communities and the administration's goal of deporting 400,000 people per year," Newman said. "And that is they're not going to be able to get that many criminals without criminalizing people."