Gov. Martin O'Malley on Tuesday demanded that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security explain why federal officials are deporting a higher share of noncriminals from Maryland than from most other states under a controversial immigration program called Secure Communities.
In a sharply worded letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the governor called on the federal agency to document why the program has led to the deportation of undocumented immigrants with either no criminal record or only misdemeanor convictions, when its long-stated intent is to target dangerous criminals.
O'Malley, a Democrat, wrote to Johnson days after The Baltimore Sun reported that the share of noncriminals deported under Secure Communities in Maryland is twice the national average.
More than 40 percent of the immigrants who have been deported from Maryland under the program since 2009 had no prior criminal record, according to government data.
"DHS has continuously assured us that the Secure Communities program would focus on violent criminals who pose a threat to national security and public safety," O'Malley wrote in the two-page letter. "Unfortunately, the data continues to demonstrate that DHS too often deviates from this stated priority."
O'Malley requested that the department detail, within 10 days, the basis for removing low-level criminals or noncriminals from Baltimore, where the state manages the local jail. He also sought an analysis to explain why Maryland appears to be deporting a higher share of those immigrants and a summary of any policy changes to address the issue.
And the governor signaled that he is weighing legislation in the General Assembly that would limit the circumstances under which local jails agree to hold immigrants who have not been arrested for or previously convicted of serious crimes. Democratic governors in California and Connecticut have signed similar measures recently.
"I have long believed that greater information sharing and cooperation among law enforcement agencies is essential to protecting public safety," O'Malley wrote. "But it is no longer clear to me that Secure Communities is primary focused on public safety. Instead, it appears that some cases are prioritized when a removal can be executed expeditiously."
Attempts late Tuesday to reach the Department of Homeland Security and its sub-agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were unsuccessful.
ICE told The Baltimore Sun in January that the state-level data are too new to support conclusions. The immigration agency also said that frequent immigration violators — such as those who cross the border repeatedly — are legitimate targets for the program even if they have not been convicted of a crime.
"ICE's priorities consist not only of criminal aliens but also priority targets, such as those with known gang affiliations, drunken-driving arrests and those who are fugitives or frequently try to game the immigration system," the agency said in a statement.
O'Malley's letter drew praise from advocates for immigrants and some Democratic state lawmakers who want the state to increase the threshold at which local jails will honor ICE requests to keep holding immigrants.
In Maryland, and most other states, local jails voluntarily honor those federal requests for 48 hours.
"I am very happy that he has taken this step," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat who is carrying such legislation the House. "It shows he is reacting … to our concerns about people who have not committed any crimes… being detained and deported."
But the idea of bucking the federal agency has also met with criticism.
The California State Sheriffs' Association, for instance, opposed the law in that state out of concern that it doesn't give local law enforcement enough flexibility to decide when releasing an arrestee might pose a threat to the community, said Aaron Maguire, the group's lobbyist in Sacramento.
O'Malley's profile on homeland security issues has been higher than many other governors, so his concerns about the program might carry more weight with the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama named O'Malley last year to serve as a co-chair of a panel of state and federal officials focused on defense and homeland security.
Secure Communities, which began in some states in 2008 under President George W. Bush, provides federal immigration officials real-time access to fingerprints of people who are arrested, be it for a homicide or driving without a license. The program was expanded under the Obama administration and is now in place nationwide.
When a suspect is arrested, his or her fingerprints are sent automatically to the Department of Homeland Security, which checks a database of immigrants known to be in the country illegally.
That database includes people who have overstayed a visa, been deported in the past or have a standing deportation order. If the arrestee's name appears in the agency's database, federal agents may arrange to pick up the immigrant from the jail.
The immigrants deported under the program are in the country illegally. And many have argued that federal and local law enforcement must take undocumented immigrants seriously so as to deter others from following their path.
But the Obama administration has argued frequently that, given limited resources, the government should prioritize those who commit crimes after they arrive. Secure Communities was intended initially to focus on violent and repeat offenders.
Advocates believe that some of those being picked up under the program could eventually be eligible to apply for legal residency if Congress advances legislation to change the nation's immigration laws.
Politicians of both parties say the current immigration system is "broken," but they differ on what to do about those undocumented immigrants who are already here.
Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this story.