Jailed Illegal Immigrants Pose Policy Dilemma

Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2010

Mwenda Murithi, the Kenyan-born leader of a notorious Chicago street gang, was arrested 26 times after his student visa was revoked in 2003. Charged with at least four felonies, he served 30 days in the Cook County Jail for a 2007 drug violation. By law, he could have been deported immediately.

But Chicago officials did not report him to immigration authorities because city and county ordinances prohibit them from doing so.

Not long after he got out of jail, Murithi ordered a gang hit that resulted in the death of 13-year-old Schanna Gayden, struck by a stray bullet as she frolicked at a playground.

Murithi, now serving 55 years, is just the sort of person U.S. immigration officials say they want to target under a program known as Secure Communities, which seeks to match the fingerprints of everyone booked into jail against immigration databases.

But the program, launched by the Bush administration and continued under President Obama, has become entangled in the suspicions and recriminations that characterize the debate over immigration policy.

{snip}

David Venturella, who runs the program for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, said minor violators are not a priority unless they also have more serious criminal histories.

“Our focus is on criminal aliens,” he said.

Many major city police agencies forbid officers from inquiring into the immigration status of witnesses and suspects, a policy adopted by local officials to shield illegal immigrants from federal authorities. But the Secure Communities program has divided those cities and the politicians within them.

Houston and Los Angeles are participating in the fingerprint sharing program despite such rules, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom opposes the efforts of the sheriff and some county supervisors to keep his city out of it.

The federal program was designed to assuage such cities, Venturella said, because it doesn’t require their active cooperation. The fingerprints are shared automatically, and ICE officers arrest those they intend to deport.

This arrangement stands in contrast to a more active federal-local effort known as the 287(g) program, under which ICE signs agreements that allow local police to arrest and detain people under immigration laws. Few big cities participate in that program.

Still, out of political sensitivity, ICE currently is not matching fingerprints from counties, such as Cook County, that object to the Secure Communities program, he said.

{snip} Through April 30, there were 216,000 hits against a database of people who previously had been fingerprinted by ICE, she [spokeswoman Randi Greenberg] said.

Of that number, 24,000 had been charged with or convicted of what ICE classifies as the most serious offenses, including rape, murder and kidnapping. The remainder involved lesser offenses, ranging from bribery and fraud to petty violations, such as gambling.

ICE deported 6,100 of those charged with or convicted of the most serious offenses, and 14,300 who were charged with or convicted of lesser offenses, she said. The goal is to expand the program nationwide by the end of 2012.

Despite Venturella’s assertion that ICE won’t focus on people charged with lesser offenses, immigration rights activists aren’t so sure.

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In Cook County, authorities can do neither [deport or make referrals based on convictions]. While the policies in Los Angeles and other cities allow police to notify immigration authorities about felons they suspect are illegal immigrants, Cook County forbids that, said Steve Patterson, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

Asked why, Chicago Alderman Roberto Maldonado argued that the law does allow the reporting of felons to immigration authorities. “We’re not protecting criminals,” he said.

The text of the law, however, contains no such provision.

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