Immigrants, city fear divide over status checks

Julio Cesar Ayala knew he was taking a risk when he decided to overstay his tourist visa four years ago, but he never expected to be threatened with deportation for climbing behind the wheel of the family's silver minivan.

The 53-year-old Salvadoran was stopped by a Baltimore County police officer last year and had to admit that he didn't have a driver's license. Hours after he was handcuffed and separated from his 9-year-old granddaughter on the side of the road, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement received an automatic notification of his arrest through a controversial and burgeoning federal program called Secure Communities.

He spent nearly two weeks in jail for a traffic violation. He now faces a deportation hearing in April.

"I've never had any problems before," said Ayala, a Cockeysville resident and grandfather to eight children born in the United States. "I feel trapped."

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security expanded Secure Communities to Baltimore, which for years had not been included in the program. The federal agency's move came despite objections from city leaders who believe it could harm the relationship between police and the Hispanic community. Many immigrants — documented and not — say they will be less likely to approach police to report a crime, even if they are victims, because they have heard stories like Ayala's.

Baltimore public safety officials stress that police procedures will not change. The state has long been required to send fingerprints of those arrested to the FBI. Under the Secure Communities program, the bureau automatically transmits those prints to Homeland Security for review. The program, city leaders say, amounts to an electronic handshake between two federal agencies.

But that argument does little to calm immigrants' fears in heavily Hispanic parts of the city such as Broadway in Fells Point, where signs advertise carne asada and Latin music blares from storefronts. There, people say, they worry that a traffic stop or a misunderstanding on the sidewalk is all that stands between their life here and deportation.

"Nobody's safe," said the Rev. Robert Wojtek of Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Patrick's, a Roman Catholic parish in Southeast Baltimore with a large Spanish-speaking congregation. "And people know that."

Maryland has the 10th-largest population of undocumented immigrants in the country, an estimated 275,000, or nearly 5 percent of the state's population, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Most of them are Hispanic.

Supporters of Secure Communities say that those caught in the system are breaking the law by being in the United States in the first place and should be deported. Federal immigration officials point out that the initiative has identified thousands who committed serious crimes after crossing the border.

City officials say they are less interested in the passionate national debate over immigration than in ensuring that the program does not affect their ability to keep Hispanic neighborhoods safe.

Implementation of the program — which began in 28 jurisdictions in 2008 and is being phased in across the country — comes at a critical time for Baltimore. After a spate of violence directed at Hispanics two years ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration increased outreach to the community through a series of meetings and attempts to make Spanish-speaking translators more ubiquitous.

The effort helped, but some say Secure Communities threatens to undermine that progress.

Denis Sanchez, an undocumented 19-year-old who lives in Highlandtown, said he is concerned about the program. A serious, clean-cut Salvadoran, Sanchez is months away from high school graduation and intends to go to college. He worries that one misstep in front of a police officer could change everything.

"That all of my dreams, all that I've accomplished so far could come crashing down over something small would be hard to stomach," Sanchez said. "It would be unfair."

Legal immigrants raise similar concerns.

At Don Pedro's Musica Latina on Broadway, owner Sandra Rivera said she's not worried about herself — she's been a citizen for years — but like many in the Hispanic community she knows many people who are undocumented. In her case, she worries about her 22-year-old nephew. For others it's a parent, sibling or spouse.

Calling the police to report a crime, she fears, could bring scrutiny on undocumented relatives if they happen to be nearby when an officer arrives.

"The police here [are] friendly. They patrol the neighborhood often. I've never had a problem," Rivera said from behind the counter of the store, an upbeat ballad playing in Spanish in the background. "But now, with this law, someone could be killing and robbing me and I wouldn't call the cops."

With a store that sells everything from Pedro Infante CDs to comforters and phone cards, Don Pedro's is a kind of thoroughfare in Fells Point, and Rivera knows the mood of the neighborhood well.

"For my friends, for my customers, for my employees, any time they come in contact with the police, it's an invitation to be asked for paperwork, to get caught."

Rivera settled in Fells Point 12 years ago because she felt Baltimore was an immigrant-friendly city. Back then, a handful of Hispanic businesses dotted a neighborhood that today teems with restaurants, music stores and bars. The city's Hispanic population, nearly 26,000, has more than doubled over the past decade, and much of that growth has taken place west of Patterson Park.

Advocates for immigrants say the city's efforts to connect with that growing population have been effective.

"We've actually made some progress, and that's part of why the implementation of this program has such a damaging effect," said Elizabeth Alex, a lead organizer for Casa de Maryland, which opposes Secure Communities. "We don't go want to go backward."

Even though it is not their program, city leaders are now scrambling to explain it to residents. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who declined to be interviewed for this article, plans to talk with immigrant leaders this week. The mayor's Hispanic liaison started making calls into the community immediately after the city was notified that Secure Communities would be activated.

"It had been our hope that ICE would do a lot of community outreach around this, explaining how it works," said Sheryl Goldstein, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice. "Their failure to do that in our community has left people very confused."

Goldstein stressed that the city's police officers are not surrogate immigration agents.

"If you're a victim of a crime or you report a crime, you're not going to be fingerprinted," she said. "We want [victims] to come forward, and we want to assure them the best that we can that this program is not going impact them."

The program has received criticism in other cities, too. In a statement last year, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, which counts Baltimore as a member, said the program "undermines the trust and cooperation with immigrant communities."

ICE spokeswoman Nicole A. Navas said the program is consistent with the Obama administration's broader goal of prioritizing the deportation of serious criminals. Ninety-four percent of people removed from the country under Secure Communities, she said in a statement, are "convicted criminals, recent illegal border entrants and those who game the immigration system."

Nationally, the program has identified about 780,000 illegal immigrants since 2008, according to ICE data. Of that number, 162,940 have been deported. The largest share of those deportations, about 30 percent, were convicted of a crime punishable by less than one year in jail. A further 27 percent were convicted of aggravated or multiple felonies.

Supporters of the program focus on the second number, while opponents tend to highlight the less serious offenses.

"Instead of targeting the worst of the worst, it is a wide-sweeping dragnet that is catching people who have not committed [major] crimes but low-level offenses," said Laura Vazquez, an analyst at the National Council of La Raza.

For some proponents of the program, the distinction is largely irrelevant. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the U.S. government should remove all illegal immigrants. Otherwise, he said, the administration sends a message that undocumented immigrants can stay in the country as long as they do not commit a serious crime.

"The idea that people who are violating the law should have complete peace of mind is illogical," he said. "If you're violating the law, if you're in the country illegally, then you probably should be a little nervous."

In Maryland, 670 people have been deported under the program, which was previously in place for every jurisdiction in the state except Baltimore City and Montgomery County. Thirty percent of those deported from the state were immigrants who had been removed from the country at least once before.

Even as the Obama administration expands Secure Communities — officials hope to have the entire nation covered next year — it is also pursuing a policy that would give immigration prosecutors wider discretion to drop cases when defendants have no prior criminal record and are closely tied to their communities. Baltimore was selected last year as one of two pilot cities to test that policy.

Advocates hope Ayala is a good candidate to have his case suspended. He traveled back and forth to El Salvador for 15 years on tourist visas and said he decided to stay here after his most recent visa expired because his life was threatened back home. He said he has applied for asylum and that the request is pending.

Ayala attends church, holds a steady job and, when home, is surrounded by a coterie of grandchildren. He said that he rarely drives but had to the day he was pulled over because the school his grandchildren attend had an early dismissal. No one else in the family was available to pick them up.

Many immigrants say there already is a lack of trust of police — an issue that simmered long before Secure Communities came along.

Norma Estrada, 39, a housekeeper for an Inner Harbor hotel, tells of her brother Hugo, a 33-year-old undocumented handyman who was attacked and robbed about four months ago on his way home to Fells Point. He never reported the crime for fear police would start asking personal questions.

"He didn't want to risk police asking him for his I.D.," Estrada said. "He can't get deported because his family in Mexico is living off what he makes here."

It's a familiar calculus for many immigrants. An unpleasant interaction with police can threaten not just their status, but their families' livelihood. Hugo's income supports his wife and three daughters.

"They need it for rent, for food, to pay for his three girls' schooling," Estrada said.

The family, she said, "needs the money he sends to survive."

Secure Communities

The U.S. government has added 2,027 jurisdictions to the program.

The program has identified about 780,000 illegal immigrants nationwide since 2008, including 4,681 in Maryland.

In all, 162,940 people have been deported under the program, including 670 from Maryland.

How Secure Communities works

1. Those arrested are fingerprinted when processed at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center, run by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

2. Fingerprints are sent electronically to the FBI.

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

4. If the prints match someone believed to be an illegal immigrant, a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent is notified.

5. If immigration agents have concerns, they may formally request that the suspect be held until ICE agents can arrange pickup.