Virginia Kice, spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), sounded hopping mad at the way that ICE’s Secure Communities initiative is being represented as undermining San Francisco's sanctuary policy and possibly creating an even worse federal immigration system.
“It’s just an information sharing system,” Kice told the Guardian. "Any time someone is electronically booked by local or state law enforcement agencies, their fingerprints will be compared up against biometrics in U.S. Department of Justice, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases. “
If a match is found, then ICE will do the follow-up investigation, Kice said.
“Not everyone in the system has violated the law,” Kice explained. “They may have applied for an immigration benefit or they could already be naturalized [have become a U.S. citizen]. It just means that they have had an encounter with DHS.”
Alluding to the ongoing debate about immigration law and racial profiling, Kice stressed that this new system doesn’t selectively finger print.
“It finger prints everybody, and because this system uses biometrics, it’s going to be accurate in terms of i.d.ing people who have had prior encounters with D.H.S,” she said.
“Some people use multiple aliases and give misinformation about their history. We know people have escaped deportation this way in the past, but fingerprints don’t lie.”
Local law enforcement officials are concerned that though the new policy is supposed to target folks charged with serious crimes, including murder, rape, sex crimes, serious assault, and resisting arrest, it will also sweep up folks charged with minor infractions, such as being drunk in public, who could now fall into ICE’s hands for deportation, especially if they resist arrest at the time, which happens to be defined as a serious crime.
“Not everybody who is in the country illegally has ever been encountered by D.H.S. and because we don’t have their biometrics, the system would not detect a match,” Kice continued. “But that does not mean they won’t be referred for a follow-up investigation. And it ensures that we get their information shortly after an encounter occurs.”
But despite Kice’s rosy assessment of the federal government’s Secure Communities program which she says has already been set up in 15 other California communities, 20 states and about 160 municipalities nationwide, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office continued to express unease at how the new program will shift the local landscape.
“The ground rules in the jails have changed, but not due to any decision on our part,” Eileen Hirst, spokesperson for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department told the Guardian.
The interlinking automated database will remove the firewall that used to protect folks booked with low-level crimes from being referred to federal immigration authorities.
“The firewall was the discretion of local law enforcement,” Hirst explained.
In San Francisco, the Sheriff’s Department developed laws that were consistent with federal laws, as well as San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance, which was enacted in 1989.
Under San Francisco’s current “City of Refuge” ordinance, local law enforcement officials refer individuals who are booked on felony charges, or have a history of felony charges, and are foreign born and have previous deportation orders or ICE holds.
But now everyone who gets arrested will be fingerprinted and referred to ICE, not through human intervention, but through a fingerprint database that connects to similar databases in Canada, Mexico and within Interpol.
“DHS, of which ICE is part, has interoperability agreements with California’s Department of Justice, which maintains a fingerprint database for state,” Hirst said.” ICE now has complete access to the DOJ databases and vice versa.”
This fundamental change in policy means that any time anyone is booked in San Francisco, they will be fingerprinted and automatically reported, including folks charged with misdemeanors, such as minor drug possession, low level financial crimes and misdemeanor battery.
“What happens next will depend on DOJ’s response,” Hirst said. “We are putting the word out because it was clear that the immediate community did not know about this.”
Local law enforcement officials say they were verbally informed of the new initiative at a recent meeting at ICE’ office at 630 Sansome Street in San Francisco. Asked if the system will go into effect June, Kice said the agency doesn’t typically inform communities when the program will be deployed, but promised to get back to us.
David Venturella, who has been involved with ICE for years and is currently the head of ICE’s Secure Communities initiative was not available for comment, but Kice sent a fact sheet, which claims the program “is leading ICE’s efforts to modernize and transform its criminal alien enforcement model, through technology, integration and information sharing.”
“This is the first time that the Federal government has used biometric identification technology to enforce immigration laws at the state and local law enforcement level,” the fact sheet states. “This enables ICE to accurately identify dangerous criminal aliens much more efficiently, and in significantly greater numbers. This also helps local law enforcement officials get dangerous criminals off their streets, at little or no additional cost. If an individual's fingerprints match those of a person in DHS's biometric system, the new automated process will notify ICE and the participating agency submitting the fingerprints. ICE will evaluate each case to determine the individual's immigration status and take appropriate enforcement action. Top priority will be given to offenders who pose a threat to the public safety, such as aliens with prior convictions for major drug offenses, murder, rape, robbery, and kidnapping."
The ICE fact sheet notes that, "Deployment of this interoperable technology across the nation is now underway as is expected to be complete by 2012."
"Congress has allocated $350 million for Secure Communities in FY 2008 and FY 2009," the fact sheet continues. "As of March 2009, Secure Communities has been deployed to 48 sites in seven states – Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia."
And clearly, it's already expanded beyond those boundaries and is about to kick in, right here in San Francisco and other Bay Area municipalities.