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Immigration program aimed at criminals deports many with no record

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Maria Carmen's 6-year-old daughter last spent a morning at home with her father on a Wednesday in October before he went to work.

On the way to his construction job, he was pulled over for speeding on Eastern Avenue — a routine traffic stop that revealed he was in the country illegally. As a result, and despite his having no prior criminal record, the husband and father within weeks was led by federal agents onto a chartered plane in handcuffs and deported to his native Ecuador.

By the time he is eligible to return, his daughter, a U.S. citizen, likely will be in high school.

More than 40 percent of the immigrants deported from Maryland under a sweeping federal program called Secure Communities have no prior criminal record — a percentage that puts the state among the top five in the nation for such deportations, an analysis by The Baltimore Sun shows. By contrast, 20 percent of the immigrants deported nationwide under the program have no record, and in Texas the rate is 12 percent.

The deportations, which often begin with traffic stops, are taking place even though Secure Communities was originally touted as a program that targets dangerous criminals. While President Barack Obama has acknowledged that noncriminals are sometimes caught up in the system, he has said that his administration is "focusing our limited resources ... on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes — not families, not just folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."

The removals in Maryland are occurring in a state where lawmakers have embraced pro-immigrant policies, including for those living here illegally. Maryland is one of the first East Coast states to distribute driver's licenses to immigrants, for instance, and to allow undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition.

But to Carmen and her daughter, Maryland no longer feels so welcoming.

"I don't even know how to tell her about the situation — about how she's not going to have a dad," said Carmen, her eyes fixed on the floor of her sparely furnished kitchen in Baltimore. "I just hope to God he can come back."

Just over 1,750 people had been deported from Maryland under Secure Communities through November, according to the most recent data available. Thirty-eight percent were repeat or felony offenders. An additional 21 percent had been convicted of a misdemeanor.

Nationwide, half of the deportees were repeat or felony offenders, and 30 percent had been convicted of lesser crimes.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the program, launched in Maryland in 2009, is too new to enable conclusions to be drawn from the state's data. State and local officials say they have no theory to explain Maryland's numbers, and that they have pressed the federal government to focus on serious criminals.

Advocates for immigrants who are in the United States illegally say federal officials are deporting thousands of people across the country who work, are raising families and have not gotten into trouble. These are the kinds of individuals likely to be eligible to apply for legal residency if Washington ever comes to an agreement on changing immigration laws, advocates say. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans support giving most of those in the country illegally a path to citizenship.

"It's totally unacceptable," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group. "I can't understand why families that are going to benefit from the potential immigration reform — like people who don't have any criminal record — are being deported."

Some supporters of Secure Communities reject the suggestion that U.S. authorities should target only criminals for immigration enforcement. Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said such policies send the wrong signal to people who are thinking about entering the country illegally.

"The message is, 'If you get here you will be home free as long as you don't commit really serious crimes and get caught,'" said Vaughan, whose Washington-based think tank supports tighter immigration laws. "That's encouraging people to risk their lives."

Crime-fighting initiative

Secure Communities, which was started in 2008 under President George W. Bush, provides federal immigration officials real-time access to fingerprints of everyone who is arrested, be it for a homicide or driving without a license. Its reach was initially limited, but the program was expanded under the Obama administration and now is in place nationwide.

It was fully implemented in Maryland in 2012, when federal immigration officials included the state's final two jurisdictions, Baltimore City and Montgomery County.

The program is largely automated. When someone 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 previously deported 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.

Nationally, Secure Communities accounted for about 60 percent of "interior removals" — as opposed to immigrants caught at the border and then deported — in the 2013 fiscal year.

Advocates and immigration experts are not certain why Maryland, Massachusetts and a handful of others consistently rank among the top states for deportation of minor criminals and those with clean records. One possible explanation, they say, could be differences in local policing or in the composition of those states' immigrant communities.

Maryland officials began to raise concerns two years ago that the Secure Communities program might make immigrants fearful of cooperating with police to solve crimes. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wrote federal officials at the time to say that she was "extremely disheartened" by the program's launch in Baltimore.

Asked to comment for this article, the mayor said in a statement that her administration has worked to build relationships in Hispanic neighborhoods. She did not address the deportation data.

State and local governments have limited power to alter the federal program, but some — including California and the District of Columbia — are taking steps to mitigate the impact by refusing to hold immigrants unless they are wanted as criminals.

Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation in the current General Assembly session that would similarly limit when local jails can hold those sought by immigration officials.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say that Maryland's data might be skewed because, with the state having entered the program more recently, some immigrants convicted of serious crimes are still in prison here. As those prisoners are deported, they said, the percentage of felons deported from the state will increase.

The agency, known as ICE, also said its mission is broader than targeting criminals and includes going after repeat immigration law violators, such as people who slip over the border again and again.

"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," according to a statement the agency released in response to questions from The Sun.

That message hasn't been consistent.

In a 2009 internal memo, ICE officials said the mission of Secure Communities was to "ensure ... removal of dangerous criminal aliens." In another section, they said the program would "prioritize criminal aliens for enforcement action based on their threat to public safety."

Two years later, the Obama administration began a controversial policy known as prosecutorial discretion intended to prioritize criminals over noncriminals for deportation. A 2011 memo circulated within ICE described the agency's leading targets as immigrants who "pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety ... with a particular emphasis on violent criminals, felons and repeat offenders."

Carmen's husband, Natividad, was snared by another program priority — repeat immigration violators and a wrinkle in the way some immigrants caught at the border were handled in the past.

Natividad was apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol when he crossed into the United States in 2001. Had he been from Mexico, authorities would have deported him quickly. But because he is Ecuadorean, U.S. authorities could not send him to Mexico. They also could not hold him, because detention centers near the border were often at peak capacity.

So, like many non-Mexican immigrants at the time, Natividad was released into the United States under a policy known as "catch and release" and told to return for an immigration hearing months later. Like many, he never showed up in court (Carmen said her husband moved frequently and never received notice of the hearing date).

In 2002, an immigration judge — noting his failure to appear — issued a civil deportation order that became part of his ICE record.

When Baltimore police pulled him over last fall for driving 11 miles over the speed limit, he couldn't produce a driver's license and was arrested. When he was booked, the 2002 deportation order popped up under the Secure Communities search. ICE officials asked the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center to hold him, and he was later picked up and deported to Ecuador.

Had he slipped into the country without being caught, there would have been no deportation order found by the Secure Communities search. Advocates say he might have been released after the traffic stop.

There is no available data showing whether Maryland has a higher share of immigrants who were released at the border under catch and release. But the state — along with nearly every other one with a high percentage of noncriminal deportations — is home to a much larger percentage of immigrants from Central and South America, who most often benefited under catch and release.

Ninety-six percent of Maryland's foreign-born population is from Central and South America or other non-Mexican countries, according to the census. That compares with 71 percent nationwide.

Whatever the reason, Carmen — also in this country illegally — is without her husband.

"He wants to come back for his daughter here," Carmen said through a translator. "It's not right how the system is working."

She wasn't sure whether her husband would attempt to re-enter the country illegally. She intends to stay.

Abdoul Konare, an immigration attorney who represents the Carmen family, said U.S. immigration enforcement policies can be devastating for families. "A huge majority of my clients don't show up to court because of ignorance or because they're scared," he said.

The result, Konare said, is that "because you don't have your lights turned on or you may not come to a complete stop, the police pull you over and — boom — ICE comes and gets you."

Marisol Latin is set to appear for a deportation hearing this month after a similar episode that took place two days before Christmas. The 29-year-old Curtis Bay resident was confronted by private security for parking her car in a fire lane at a grocery store on Ritchie Highway. A security officer told her to stay in the car while he called police; she was arrested for attempting to drive without a license.

"My husband was trying to cover my daughter's eyes," Latin said through a translator. "But she saw everything. She saw her mother taken away by police."

When she was booked by Anne Arundel County police, Secure Communities identified an outstanding deportation order from 2004, when the native Guatemalan was caught crossing the border. Though she did not have a prior criminal conviction, she was detained for 29 days and transferred twice before being allowed to return to her family, she said.

Latin scoffed at the notion that ICE is prioritizing people who commit crimes once in the country.

"What really happens is people like me get deported," she said. "All they want to do on the ground is round folks up and get them out of the country."

Maryland reacts

State officials have taken steps that could reduce the number of people caught up by the program. Chief among those was a measure supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley and signed into law last year that enables immigrants in the country illegally to obtain a Maryland driver's license.

Supporters predict that the initiative will reduce the number of immigrants arrested after traffic stops, while opponents have raised concerns that it could turn Maryland into a sanctuary state.

Neither outcome seems likely soon. As of mid-January, only about 650 immigrants had received a driver's license under the new policy, according to the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

O'Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith did not address questions about the state's deportation figures. But she said the governor's office has "strongly urged the Department of Homeland Security to focus its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a clear risk to public safety."

Asked for more detail, Smith pointed to a 2012 letter in which O'Malley told ICE officials that the state would limit to 48 hours how long the Baltimore City Detention Center will hold undocumented immigrants identified under Secure Communities. Federal officials request only a 48-hour hold, but in practice some immigrants wind up being held longer.

That issue has become central for groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which is pushing state lawmakers to limit the circumstances under which local jails will hold immigrants under ICE-issued detainers. Jails are not required to honor the detainers, according to a 2013 memo from the Maryland attorney general. But most do.

Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, is sponsoring legislation in the General Assembly that would let a judge decide whether to set bail or release an illegal immigrant who is arrested — just as they would in cases that do not involve one.

"We're not talking about letting criminals out," Ramirez said. "The judge is not going to release anyone on a low bail if they've committed a serious act."

Change is needed, Ramirez contends, in the interest of fairness.

"Now, we're punishing people without them even having their day in court," he said. "And we're creating orphans out of kids."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Secure communities

The U.S. government collects fingerprints of arrestees in 3,181 jurisdictions.

In all, 319,982 people have been deported under the program, including 1,753 from Maryland. About 720 people deported from the state under the program, or 41 percent, had no prior criminal record. Another 370 people, or 21 percent, had misdemeanors.

How Secure Communities works

•Those arrested are fingerprinted when processed at the local jail.

•Fingerprints are sent electronically to the FBI.

•The FBI shares the fingerprints with the Department of Homeland Security for a check against its database.

•If the prints match someone with an immigration violation, a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent is notified.

•If immigration agents have concerns, they can formally request that the suspect be held by local officials until ICE agents can arrange pickup.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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