Illegal immigrants are being deported from Washington, D.C., at a lower rate than most states and other big cities under a federal program designed to remove illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes.
Data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement show the city deported 30 illegal immigrants in the first 10 months since implementing the Secure Communities program, which calls for local authorities to share fingerprint and criminal data of people brought to jail with ICE so immigration officials can home in on violent or repeat offenders.
The District, which resisted the program's implementation and enacted a law limiting the city's cooperation with federal authorities, submitted 17,972 fingerprint records to ICE from the start of the program in June through March 31, resulting in one deportation per 599 submissions. Of the 14 U.S. cities with populations of more than 500,000 that submitted statistics to ICE, the District's rate was the second lowest — trailing only Baltimore, where one person was deported per every 1,019 fingerprint submissions.
Participation in Secure Communities is federally mandated, but based on legislators' enthusiasm — or lack thereof — for the program, state and local officials have adopted a patchwork of laws that can help or hinder the program's efficiency.
Critics in the past have called the District a sanctuary city for its adoption of policies friendly to illegal immigrants. Mayor Vincent C. Gray in 2011 issued an executive order prohibiting police officers and other city employees from inquiring about a person's immigration status. Mr. Gray last week introduced a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to acquire driver's licenses.
But it’s the city’s policy that bars the D.C. Jail from honoring ICE detainers filed for inmates that could be a key factor to the District's low deportation-to-submission rate, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors a crackdown on immigrants. The federal agency files a notice known as a detainer to let state or local authorities know that it plans to take custody of an individual.
"The District has the strictest and most obstructive policy on detainers," Ms. Vaughan said. "My guess is that the single most important reason for the difference is the local policy and attitude toward cooperating with ICE."
Federal officials declined to comment on differences between rates in other jurisdictions.
"ICE will not speculate on why various jurisdictions have different percentage ratios of aliens removed," spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said.
Busiest along the border
Big cities with the highest rates of deportations were near the U.S. border with Mexico. El Paso, Texas, had the highest deportation rate, with one illegal immigrant deported per every 12 fingerprint submissions, followed by San Diego with a rate of one per every 35 submissions.
Compared with states, the District had the ninth-lowest deportation-to-submission rate, after Alaska, Vermont, West Virginia, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire and Hawaii. Alaska, which implemented Secure Communities in April, has deported no illegal immigrants.
The District's ranking puts it next to states with the lowest percentage of foreign-born residents, Ms. Vaughan said. Yet 13.6 percent of the District's population is foreign-born and an estimated 4.5 percent — or about 25,000 people — are believed to be illegal immigrants, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The states with the highest deportation-to-submission rates were Texas, California and Arizona, all abutting the Mexico border.
Deportation numbers across the country have risen steadily overall since the program began. But as federal and local governments have altered policies, declines in the numbers of deportations among some categories of illegal immigrants have been reported, said Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the D.C.-based nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for strict immigration control.
"We've also seen a decline in the removal of illegal aliens who have not been criminal violators," Ms. Williamson said. "Secure Communities can be helpful for that; however, there are individuals they are identifying but not removing because of the jurisdiction's policies and the Obama administration's own created priorities."
Critics on both sides
The Secure Communities initiative has been rolled out in piecemeal fashion in states and localities since late 2008 and was fully implemented this year.
Through March 31, more than 266,000 illegal immigrants — including 77,000 people who were convicted of aggravated felony offenses, including murder, rape and sexual abuse of children — were deported through Secure Communities.
"ICE continues to focus on smart and effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and other public safety threats, recent border crossers and repeat immigration law violators," Ms. Gonzalez said. "Secure Communities has proven to be one of the single most valuable tools in allowing the agency to concentrate its resources on individuals who meet these enforcement priorities."
But during congressional debate over a policy for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the program has drawn criticism from both sides.
Those who want a crackdown on illegal immigration say the Obama administration isn't detaining all the people identified as deportable when the checks are run. They point to reports connecting illegal immigrants flagged but not deported under Secure Communities to homicides and other violent crimes.
Immigrant rights advocates say the program acts as a dragnet to catch those who don't rise to the level of major criminals. They point to stories of families who are split as a result of relatively minor legal violations, such as traffic infractions.
According to ICE statistics, 12,000 people who were deported through the program had no criminal convictions but were found to have either visa violations or to have entered the country illegally. Another 40,000 had no criminal convictions but were removed previously from the country.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, a Democrat who represents the Ward 1 neighborhoods that are home to large concentrations of Hispanic residents, is among those who worry that Secure Communities negatively affects relations between police and the communities they serve. He said he found it "comforting" that the District had a relatively low deportation rate.
"We shouldn't be doing it at all, in my opinion," Mr. Graham said.
Before the June 5 rollout of the Secure Communities program within the D.C. Department of Corrections, inmates who were to be turned over to ICE custody were held at the city's jail for "several days" pending a scheduled transfer to federal authorities, said Sylvia Lane, spokeswoman for the department.
The D.C. Council in August passed legislation that limited the amount of time to 24 hours that an inmate can be held on an ICE detainer. But the bill mandated that the jail would hold inmates scheduled for release for that extra 24 hours only if an agreement was brokered between ICE and the District ensuring that ICE reimburse the city for all costs associated with holding the person — a stipulation that undercuts a major component of the program.
"There is no agreement in place at this time under which ICE would reimburse [the Department of Corrections] for holding inmates past the date they are otherwise eligible for release," Ms. Lane wrote in an email. "Therefore, DOC does not hold inmates on ICE detainers."
The law also stipulated that the District will hold only immigrants who are at least 18 and have been convicted of violent offenses.
As a result, the District has turned over fewer illegal immigrants flagged in its jail to federal authorities since Secure Communities began than it did before the program was initiated.
According to information provided by the Department of Corrections, 50 people were turned over to ICE custody in 2011 — before Secure Communities was implemented. In fiscal 2012, the number of inmates picked up by ICE officials was 30, and through March 7 of fiscal 2013, ICE had taken custody of five inmates.
Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Immigration Project, a Boston-based nonprofit affiliate of the National Lawyers Guild that works on behalf of immigrants and their communities, said the program hasn't been active long enough to glean real insight into its effectiveness. She added that the city's laws helped reduce fears about enforcement.
"I think the legislation passing has been very reassuring to groups here," she said "The District is interested in showing immigration enforcement is not going to pass through our local cops."
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