A controversial program that lets U.S. immigration officials check the citizenship status of people who have been arrested is being expanded to include Baltimore despite objections from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and immigrant advocates.
The Secure Communities program, which began in 2008 and is being phased in nationwide, lets federal immigration officials review fingerprints collected when people are booked. The review will start in Baltimore and Montgomery County on Wednesday, according to a Department of Homeland Security letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The decision prompted an outcry from some local officials, who have little control over the process and complained about a lack of notification from the federal government. Immigrant advocates and officials in other states have argued that the program hurts the relationship between Hispanic communities and police, making it harder to solve crimes in those neighborhoods.
The move comes as Rawlings-Blake has made it a priority to increase the city's population by 22,000 people — or 3.5 percent — over a decade, in part by courting foreign-born residents.
"I am extremely disheartened by this recent decision to implement the program in Baltimore and the manner in which it is being carried out," Rawlings-Blake wrote in a recent letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.
Supporters counter that it is reasonable to check the residency status of someone arrested for a crime, particularly given the Obama administration's focus on deporting illegal aliens accused of committing other crimes.
State Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican who supports the Secure Communities program, said it has value in addition to identifying illegal immigrants. "A number of offenders have been released on bail and fled," he said, adding that under the program, they would instead be turned over to immigration officials. "It's a victory for public safety and it's a victory for victims."
In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the program "has demonstrated its effectiveness in transforming immigration enforcement to a focus on criminal offenders" and that in two years time it has "dramatically increased the removal of convicted criminals."
Because the change involves sharing of information between two federal agencies, local officials and those arrested will notice no difference when the program takes effect. Local jail officials already send fingerprints to the FBI. Under the program, the FBI transmits those fingerprints to Homeland Security, which checks them against its own database.
Local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are notified if something looks awry in that check.
Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center is run by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. A spokesman, Mark Vernarelli, confirmed the state agency received notification of the change from the Homeland Security Department, but said it "doesn't change anything that we do."
Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said, "It'll be business as usual."
The effort, already under way in other Maryland counties, has resulted in 162,940 deportations nationwide and 670 from the state since 2008, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. The agency expects to have every jurisdiction in the nation under the program by the end of 2013.
Immigrant advocates such as Casa de Maryland say the program is frequently scooping up for deportation illegal immigrants who have committed only minor offenses. In Maryland, 25 percent of those deported were convicted of felonies, according to the government data.
The rest had misdemeanor records, overstayed a visa or disobeyed a previous deportation order.
"There are millions of children in the United States right now — many of whom are citizens — who are at risk of becoming orphans" because of the program, said Casa de Maryland's organizing director, Gustavo Andrade.
Casa de Maryland will hold a series of events Wednesday to "call on our leaders here in Maryland to try to do everything in their power to mitigate the terrible effects," Andrade said.
The federal program began under President George W. Bush but has expanded under President Barack Obama. The expansion comes at the same time that the Obama White House has given immigration prosecutors more latitude to suspend deportation cases in situations where an illegal immigrant has not committed a crime and has a strong connection to the community.
Baltimore was one of two pilot cities in which prosecutors conducted an expedited review of backlogged immigration cases to determine which could be suspended.
The Secure Communities program has met with resistance in other states. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, said last year that he was withdrawing from the program, but federal officials insist that participation is mandatory.
People arrested in Prince George's County have been reviewed under the program since 2009. Scott Peterson, a spokesman for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, said it "has been a controversial program in the county and the Baker administration has continued to [study] our legal options."
In Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake met with ICE officials last year to "express our concerns about the program and how it would impact Baltimore's immigrant communities" and wrote in the letter that she had been assured the agency would not begin implementation before holding discussions with local immigrant groups.
The mayor said she was taken by surprise when a "junior staff member" received an e-mail last week notifying the city of the decision to start the program on Wednesday.
"We recognize that the City of Baltimore plays no role in the implementation of the program," she wrote, "and I have no control over ICE's actions."
Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Killer contributed to this article
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