County tries to escape federal grasp

Supervisors' split vote favors staying with Habitat Conservation Plan

County officials fear they might not be able to exempt
themselves from an unfunded federal immigration enforcement program
that could instill fear into people who need police or safety net
County officials fear they might not be able to exempt themselves from an unfunded federal immigration enforcement program that could instill fear into people who need police or safety net assistance.

The Santa Clara County board of supervisors voted unanimously Sept. 28 to begin “opt-out” procedures for Secure Communities – a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that requires participating counties to share fingerprints and other inmate data with the federal office. ICE uses the information to enforce federal immigration laws.

The federal initiative is at odds with the county’s policy not to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law. Supervisors and county staff noted that participation might jeopardize the safety of county residents by discouraging them from calling police or seeking services out of fear that their immigration status will be questioned.

The program, which would require the county Department of Corrections to detain alleged immigration offenders up to 48 hours, does not come with funding, Supervisor Don Gage noted.

“They’re trying to get us to do their work for free,” Gage said. “We’re doing ICE’s job, and we don’t want to do that.”

County officials estimate there are about 200,000 undocumented immigrants in Santa Clara County. But staff noted local law enforcement and corrections staff do not have the resources or expertise to identify, locate and arrest undocumented immigrants or any other immigration offenders.

Still, opting out of the program may prove difficult. Information from federal officials – who implement Secure Communities through the state Department of Justice – has been unclear and at times contradictory, and Gage said the federal government might “force” the county to participate.

The program was implemented locally without anyone knowing about it in the first place, county staff said.

The federal offices enrolled Santa Clara County in Secure Communities in May 2009. The county did not know about the federal program until October 2009.

Currently, the county’s Department of Corrections shares the fingerprints of anyone arrested locally to the California Department of Justice, county staff said. Historically, the state has shared the information with the federal government, only for criminal law enforcement purposes.

Under Secure Communities, the Justice Department allows fingerprint data from local agencies to be compared to fingerprints in the Department of Homeland Security’s electronic database of possible immigration offenders, county staff said. When these comparisons result in the identification of potentially undocumented immigrants, federal agents ask for assistance from counties to detain, question and take custody of individuals.

District 1 candidate Forrest Williams agreed with the supervisors’ decision, noting immigration enforcement is not a local issue. Cities and counties are tasked with allocating money only for the enforcement and funding of local programs and laws, Williams said.

The county will have to navigate through layers of authority in order to determine if they can be exempted. The state of California has already agreed to participate in Secure Communities with the federal government, so any local jurisdiction that wishes to opt out will have to contact the DOJ and ICE, ICE spokesman Brian Hale said.

The likelihood Santa Clara County will successfully opt out is “unknown,” said Anjali Bhargava, deputy county counsel. The only other locality that has done so since Secure Communities was introduced is Washington, D.C. The program has been deployed in 38 of 58 counties in California.

Local officials have criticized Secure Communities for its overzealous detention of immigration offenders who, despite being in the U.S. without documentation, have no criminal histories. Of thealmost 47,000 people deported from the country through Secure Communities from Oct. 2008 to June 2010, about 12,000 or 26 percent had not committed any state or local crimes.

That contradicts previous claims by ICE officials that their focus is on removing violent or habitual offenders from communities, according to county staff.

“This program does not make any community in our county safer, because it creates fear among our residents and prevents them from reporting crime,” said Supervisor George Shirakawa, Chairman of the board’s Public Safety and Justice Committee. “Our responsibility as a county is not to enforce immigration law at the expense of losing our residents’ trust.”

Furthermore, if the county becomes involved in the enforcement of immigration laws, that could jeopardize the county’s relationship with other local law enforcement agencies when it comes to fighting crime, Bhargava said.

The county already cooperates with ICE when the federal agency learns a wanted person is in DOC custody, Bhargava added. In those cases, ICE will put a “detainer” notification on the subject, asking the county to hold them for up to 48 hours – or longer if it’s on a weekend or holiday.

The county’s compliance with such requests is voluntary, according to local and federal officials.

The costs associated with such detention were not available at press time. Bhargava said detention is the most significant cost associated with Secure Communities, which casts a wider net than previous laws and could end up in more federal detainer requests.

Secure Communities only affects inmates who are fingerprinted at county jails, and will not keep track of anyone who seeks other county services, county staff said.

Patients who check in at Valley Medical Center, for example, are not asked for their citizenship or residency status, and are not fingerprinted. “We don’t want them spreading diseases so we give them treatment, Gage said.

And people who are fingerprinted for background checks for county employment will not be referred to the state or federal fingerprint database, Bhargava said.

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