A rapidly expanding illegal immigration enforcement program has led to the deportation of 47,000 people over 18 months when the Homeland Security Department was sifting through millions of fingerprints taken at local jail bookings.
About a fifth of those had committed or were charged with what are categorized as the most serious crimes, but about one-quarter did not have criminal records, according to government data obtained by immigration advocacy groups who had sued.
ICE posted the data on its website late Monday in advance of the group's release of the data Tuesday.
The federal government says the fingerprint sharing program, known as Secure Communities, helps to identify criminal immigrants who threaten public safety in the U.S.
Secure Communities is one of several ICE programs targeting immigrants charged or convicted of crimes. Overall, 49 percent of the immigrants ICE has deported so far this year have been criminals, compared to 35 percent all of last fiscal year.
Immigration advocates say the government spends too much time on lower-level criminals and people who have not committed crimes. They also allege the program makes people fearful of reporting crimes, does not protect against racial profiling and is being forced on some communities without consent.
"ICE essentially throws a gill net over the concept of immigration reform. It sweeps up all the little people along with what they say is their intention, which is to deport serious and violent criminals," said San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, whose city is having trouble getting out of the program. He said people picked up on traffic violations, whose charges are later dropped, still get deported.
From October 2008 through June of this year, 46,929 people identified through Secure Communities were removed from the U.S., the documents show. Of those, 12,293 were considered non-criminals and 9,831 were labeled as having committed the most serious crimes.
Fingerprints of people booked into jails already are sent to state criminal justice departments to be checked against federal criminal databases. Under Secure Communities, they also go to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to run through Homeland Security databases.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement divides crimes into three categories, with Level 1 being the most serious. Level 1 crimes include actions that threaten or compromise national security, murder, rape, drug crimes punishable by more than one year, theft and even resisting arrest.
Most of those deported committed Level 2 or 3 crimes or were non-criminals, a monthly report of Secure Communities statistics shows.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Tuesday that Secure Communities is in place in all 25 counties along the U.S.-Mexico border. Her statement, released just before advocates criticized the program in a conference call with media, did not say when that occurred.
"Secure Communities gives ICE the ability to work with our state and local law enforcement partners to identify criminal aliens who are already in their custody, expediting their removal and keeping our communities safer," Napolitano said.
Richard Rocha, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, said Monday non-criminals may be people who have failed to show up for deportation hearings, who recently crossed the border illegally or who re-entered the country after deportation. He also said it's important to remember that more people commit offenses that are considered Level 2 and 3 crimes.
The Obama administration wants Secure Communities operating nationwide by 2013.
As of Aug. 3, 494 counties and local and state agencies in 27 states were sharing fingerprints from jail bookings through the program.
California had the highest percentage of immigrants deported who had committed Level 1 crimes, with 38 percent of a total 14,823 immigrants sent out of the country, according to statistics from 24 of the states participating through the end of June. In Georgia, 39 percent of 624 immigrants removed were non-criminals, the highest rate among the states.
Travis County, Texas led all counties with the highest percentage of non-criminals deported, 82 percent of 724, according to the groups' analysis of the statistics.
The Immigration Justice Clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, the National Day Laborer Organizers Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights had requested and sued for the statistics. They are awaiting the release of more data from the program.