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Originally published Friday, December 10, 2010 at 2:44 PM

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Guest columnist

Fed's immigration enforcement strategies increasingly criminalize immigrants

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created a new program called "Secure Communities" to further cooperation between federal, state and local criminal-justice systems. Guest columnist Ann Benson argues the process is criminalizing countless numbers of immigrants.

Special to The Times

WHAT in these anxious times could create a more effective veneer of legitimacy around a dubious and powerful government policing program than to name it "Secure Communities"?

This is the moniker U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave to its newest program aimed at furthering its merger of immigration enforcement into state and local criminal-justice systems.

Whether this merger is making us more secure is debatable. What is clear is that ICE's misguided strategies to accomplish it are criminalizing countless numbers of immigrants.

Secure Communities is an extension of ICE's bedrock enforcement initiative, the Criminal Alien Program. Through CAP, ICE deploys agents to comb through local jails to identify and interrogate noncitizens arrested by local police (on criminal charges) and funnel them directly into immigration detention, where most face deportation. Secure Communities will make ICE's job easier by giving them access to the fingerprint data of these arrested noncitizens collected during the jail booking process.

ICE's stated priority for both programs is to apprehend and deport "serious criminal aliens." Since 9/11, Congress has authorized billions of dollars ($1.6 in fiscal year 2011 alone) to accomplish this goal, unleashing a vast network of ICE agents running like dogcatchers through our jails.

Whether you support ICE's efforts, its own statistics reveal the majority of people being swept up into this expanding dragnet are not "serious criminal aliens." Most are working-class immigrants of color with no significant criminal history.

However, the poisonous cacophony of anti-immigrant hysteria currently dominating the immigration debate has made clear that designating as many immigrants as possible as criminals ensures a steady flow of congressional cash to ICE's enforcement regime. It also obscures the real costs of these programs to our communities.

As an immigration attorney assisting public defenders representing noncitizen defendants, I witness the real costs daily. Is ICE apprehending "serious criminal aliens"? Yes, I agree they are. I regularly see noncitizens convicted of serious crimes taken into ICE custody. If only it stopped there.

Far more prevalent, however, is the daily roundup of immigrants arrested on minor misdemeanor violations (in some locations, traffic infractions will do). It is this group of people who account for the lion's share of deportations under Secure Communities and CAP. Many leave behind families, employers and communities that depended upon them.

The stories often blur together in a long river of sadness. One recent standout was the case of an immigrant woman from Snohomish County. Accused of misdemeanor theft, she was arrested and booked into jail. Within hours, an ICE agent placed an "immigration hold" on her, preventing her release from jail (as is normally the case in that situation).

Nine months pregnant, the stress of the situation caused her to go into labor. At the hospital, despite pleadings from the nurses, she was shackled to the bed while delivering her baby. She was prohibited from nursing her newborn and her husband was not allowed to see her until she was finally released from jail several days later.

So, it was welcome news to learn that the Washington State Patrol refused to sign a statewide agreement with ICE that would bind all counties to participate in Secure Communities. The State Patrol recognized that under Washington's Constitution, each county has the right to make its own determination about whether participation in the program will make it more secure. Should a county decide that it would, it can then enter into its own agreement with ICE to participate.

Far from making our communities in Washington more secure, the current ICE enforcement regime has meant that we live with more racial profiling by local law enforcement, less-effective policing, and significantly increased financial burdens to our struggling local county governments.

As data from other states shows, implementation of the Secure Communities program simply compounds these already serious problems. With the decision not to sign a statewide agreement to implement it here, our communities have a small reprieve from the expanding ICE enforcement dragnet.

Hopefully it will allow us time to inject some sanity into what has become a rising tide of irrational immigration enforcement that is terrorizing our immigrant communities, not fixing our broken immigration system, and certainly not making us more secure.

Ann Benson is directing attorney for the Washington Defender Association's Immigration Project.

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