States balk at illegals program

Democratic areas rebel

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Massachusetts announced Monday that it will refuse to join the federal government’s Secure Communities initiative, becoming the latest state to balk at the Obama administration’s key anti-illegal immigration program designed to target gang members and violent felons for deportation.

Following on the heels of Illinois and New York, which this year said they would try to opt out of the program, the move signals growing discontent from usually reliable Democratic territory over President Obama’s immigration policy, which is now drawing fire from both sides of the aisle.

“The governor and I are dubious of the commonwealth taking on the federal role of immigration enforcement,” Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan wrote to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the division of the Homeland Security Department that runs the program.

It comes as more states are challenging the Obama administration’s immigration efforts. From the right, Arizona has led a battle to empower local police to check immigration status, while the rebellion against Secure Communities highlights concerns from the left that Mr. Obama is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants, many of whom do not have the extensive criminal records on which the president has said he wants to focus.

But it was unclear whether Massachusetts has any option. Secure Communities operates on fingerprints that local law enforcement agencies send to the FBI every time someone is arrested and booked. Homeland Security officials say they retain the right to run them through immigration databases to see whether there are illegal immigrants who should be prioritized for deportation.

“The federal government, not the state or local law enforcement agency, determines what immigration enforcement action, if any, is appropriate,” ICE spokeswoman Nicole A. Navas said. “Only federal officers make immigration decisions, and they do so only after an individual is arrested for a criminal violation of state law, separate and apart from any violations of immigration law.”

ICE says that about 42 percent of states and localities are part of the program and that the entire country will be covered by 2013.

As of May 31, just one Massachusetts locale, Suffolk County, participated in Secure Communities. Half of New York’s 62 counties, and about a quarter of Illinois’ counties were signed up.

Through March 31, ICE said the program had resulted in the identifications of 151,590 criminal aliens and 77,160 of their deportations.

That has helped bolster the record level of deportations, which Mr. Obama has touted as a major step in changing immigration enforcement away from going after rank-and-file immigrants and toward criminals.

Immigration advocates, though, say the program is leading to deportations of illegal immigrants who have no criminal records, but whom the federal government targets once they are arrested on minor charges.

Overall in fiscal year 2010, ICE deported 392,862 aliens, and 195,772 had criminal records while 197,090 did not.

The rebellion against Secure Communities is spreading rapidly. Hispanic members of Congress have challenged the program’s direction, and this week Los Angeles’ city council is slated to hear testimony on a resolution condemning the program.

From within the administration, Homeland Security’s inspector general has announced an investigation into whether the program does strive “to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens” from the U.S., or strays beyond that.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, has asked the inspector general to also look at whether administration officials misled localities about the ability to opt out.

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