The District could be forced to participate in an immigration-enforcement program now that the federal government has issued a letter to states that voided their participation agreements and emphasized the program's mandatory nature.
The Department of Homeland Security sent the letter last week to governors of 39 states, including Maryland and Virginia, after three states expressed interest in opting out of their contracts with the federal Secure Communities program.
The program allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to access fingerprints collected by state and local law enforcement and shared with the FBI. It was started in 2008 and has helped ICE identify and deport more than 86,000 convicted criminal aliens.
"This is to avoid any further confusion," ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas said Monday. "We've made it clear. There's no opting out."
DHS voided the agreements to clarify that they essentially served no purpose, and that states are required to remain in the program. Federal officials no longer will seek agreement with newly enrolled states and jurisdictions, and will simply notify them when they plan to implement the program.
The program currently operates in 43 states. DHS hopes to expand it nationwide by the end of 2013.
Many local and state officials have expressed concerns that while Secure Communities removes dangerous illegal immigrants, it unfairly targets many minor offenders and even illegal immigrants who report crimes but are fingerprinted in the process.
"No longer are the law enforcement officers there to protect people," said Enid Gonzalez, legal director for immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland. "We've had cases of people who have called for protection and been arrested."
Officials in Illinois, Massachusetts and New York have tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the program because of such concerns, while many jurisdictions have protested or drafted critical resolutions.
The District has staved off participation through resistance from activists and the D.C. Council, but federal officials say such displays are unlikely to prevent the inevitable.
Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said the city's heavy reliance on federal funds likely will force it to comply when called upon by federal officials, despite the council's concerns.
"If they do that, then we're stuck," she said. "There's just too much federal money to risk non-compliance."
Federal officials insist the program is mandatory and permanent, but they announced several reforms in June designed to address concerns that the program could discourage illegal immigrants from reporting crimes.
Critics have argued that the program is especially harmful to witnesses or victims in domestic violence cases, in which an accuser and suspect are sometimes both detained by police.
The reforms include a revised training program for state and local law enforcement officials and the formation of a task force to address possible protections for witnesses and suspects who are arrested for minor offenses such as traffic violations but never charged.
All of Virginia currently participates in Secure Communities, as do 22 of 24 jurisdictions in Maryland. Baltimore has resisted, with its City Council even drafting a resolution in June condemning the program, while Montgomery County will enroll this fall despite concerns from many of its officials.
"In many cases, it makes a community insecure," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, a Democrat. "But I don't think we have much of an option. We're going to comply with the law."
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