Immigrants' fingerprinting program under scrutiny

/ Source: The Associated Press

A California congresswoman asked on Thursday for an investigation of whether Homeland Security employees lied to the public, local governments and Congress about an immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities.

Secure Communities is a program that identifies immigrants who could be deported because of their immigration status or the commission of a crime.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, asked the Homeland Security Department's inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility to review statements made by department employees, including staff of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"I believe some of these false and misleading statements may have been made intentionally, while others were made recklessly, knowing that the statements were ambiguous and likely to create confusion," Lofgren said.

She based her allegations on thousands of emails and other documents the agency released earlier this year in response to an open government lawsuit filed by immigration advocates. The Associated Press obtained copies and reported in February the Obama administration pitched Secure Communities participation to local officials as voluntary, until some refused to participate. Then the federal government insisted on states' participation.

Most of the names in the emails were blacked out, and some of the documents were withheld. Because of the missing information, "it is important you review the conduct of all relevant persons in order to determine who bears responsibility for any misconduct that you find," Lofgren said in her letter to the investigators.

Legislation moving through the California Assembly would allow local governments in the state to refuse to participate and would set standards for those who do.

Communities routinely send fingerprints taken from people booked into jails or prison to state agencies. The states forward the prints to the FBI to check criminal histories. Under Secure Communities, the FBI shares the prints with the Homeland Security Department to check them against immigration files.

Some communities have refused to participate or resisted, saying the fingerprint sharing makes it tougher to do their jobs. Immigrants, fearful of being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are reluctant to report crimes or help solve them, some law enforcement officials have said.

In California, San Francisco, Santa Clara County and San Jose, did not want to participate. On Monday, in an editorial board meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said communities could not decide to exclude themselves from sharing fingerprints with her agency. The "opt-in, opt-out thing was a misunderstanding from the get-go ... and we have tried to correct that," she said.

Secure Communities is credited with identifying and deporting serious criminals who have committed rapes, murders that were in jails or had been released and arrested on other crimes. But it is also blamed for the arrest and deportations of many people who have not committed crimes or committed misdemeanors.

The Homeland Security Department has said the program will be in place nationally by 2013.