Three sheriffs push for federal Secure Communities program

Back initiative that aims to find illegal immigrants

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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Three Massachusetts sheriffs are in talks with federal immigration officials to bring the Secure Communities program to their cities and towns, three months after Governor Deval Patrick said he opposed taking the controversial crime-fighting strategy statewide.

The sheriffs of Bristol, Worcester, and Plymouth counties say they want to join Boston police in the initiative, which cross-checks the fingerprints of everyone arrested against federal immigration databases, with the goal of deporting serious criminals. Federal officials confirmed they are in discussions with the sheriffs, and said other police departments have also expressed interest.

The aggressive outreach follows Patrick’s refusal to join the program in June, amid a volatile national debate over whether Secure Communities is enhancing public safety or diminishing it by making immigrants afraid to report crime. The governors of Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois have all criticized US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, for using the initiative to deport many immigrants who have never been convicted of a crime.

But supporters say Secure Communities is also netting many violent offenders, which is increasingly its focus, and that it should be expanded. Boston is the only city in the state enrolled in Secure Communities.

“I am working on it,’’ said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who said he met with federal officials last month about joining. “We’re going to implement the program as quickly as ICE will give it to us.’’

The sheriffs have, for some time, been vocal in the news media in their support of the program. Nicole Navas, agency spokeswoman, would not say whether it would be activated in other cities and towns in Massachusetts before the end of 2013, when it will become mandatory nationwide. To activate Secure Communities, US officials say they first need enough federal agents, jail space for detainees, and vehicles to transport them to make it work. Secure Communities was launched in 2008, after it was offered as a pilot program in Boston, and is now in 43 states and Puerto Rico.

Secure Communities works by tapping into a longstanding relationship between local and state police and the FBI. For years, local law enforcement have sent the fingerprints of people arrested and booked to the FBI to check their criminal records. Under Secure Communities, the FBI shares those fingerprints with immigration officials, to determine if the person is here illegally and to pursue action against them.

Patrick, who favors deporting convicted criminals, declined to comment on the sheriffs’ initiative. He has said that he is concerned Secure Communities could lead to ethnic profiling and could make immigrants afraid to report crime. He also pointed to federal statistics showing that half of those deported from Boston under the program had not been convicted of any crime.

Federal officials recently announced that they are taking extraordinary steps to place an emphasis on deporting criminals, such as halting less urgent deportation cases in immigration courts to more quickly deport serious offenders.

Federal immigration officials released new statistics last week to bolster their assertion that the agency is focusing on deporting criminals and, in another priority, on flagrant violators of immigration law.

According to the figures, which cover October 2008 to July 31 of this year, 52 percent of the 369 immigrants deported from Boston were convicted criminals.

About 48 percent of the deportees had no prior criminal record. But the agency provided new details that showed for the first time that most noncriminal deportees were more serious violators of immigration law, including 68 people with outstanding deportation orders and 49 people who allegedly returned to the United States after having been deported - a felony offense, though they were not convicted of it.

The remaining 60 noncriminal deportees had allegedly crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas.

The federal agency has touted Secure Communities as an initiative that could make cities and towns safer.

Federal officials said that the program helped find Joao Brito in Boston, who was wanted in his native Netherlands on charges of human smuggling and sexual abuse of children.

Interest in the program reignited last month after Nicolas Guaman, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador with traffic violations, was accused of running over and killing Matthew Denice, 23, a motorcyclist in Milford, while intoxicated.After Denice’s death, Worcester Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis fired off a letter to the federal immigration agency reaffirming his request to enroll.

“When you have the ability to find out more information on those that are held in your jail, then I think we should do everything in our power to let federal officials take action,’’ he said.