San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey and immigration rights advocates today renewed their call to allow San Francisco to opt out of a new federal fingerprint reporting program aimed at criminals suspected of being in the country illegally.
Federal immigration officials said they would consider the request.
The Secure Communities program, begun in 2008 and being implemented across the country by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has drawn the ire of immigration groups who say the program is being used to sweep up undocumented immigrants whether or not they have committed serious crimes.
The groups argue the program also dissuades immigrants from reporting crimes in their communities, for fear they too will be deported. They claim it drives a wedge of distrust between the immigrant community and local law enforcement.
“I am not unwilling to cooperate with ICE with regard to serious (offenders) charged with felonies,” Hennessey told reporters during a conference call with immigration groups this morning.
Hennessey said he had reported felony suspects believed to be in the country illegally before Secure Communities was implemented in the San Francisco June 8, and would continue to do so under the city’s sanctuary ordinance.
Hennessey, worried that Secure Communities would conflict with the sanctuary policy shielding those booked for minor crimes, had asked ICE and the state Department of Justice to allow him to opt out of the program prior to its implementation in San Francisco.
The program–which is now operating in 35 California counties, including all nine Bay Area counties, Los Angeles and San Diego – shares the fingerprints of anyone booked into jail after an arrest, whether for a felony or misdemeanor, to be shared with ICE’s federal databases to help determine if that person are in the country illegally.
The Justice Department is the go-between that shares fingerprints with ICE.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown rejected Hennessey’s request in late May, saying Secure Communities “advances important and legitimate law enforcement objectives.”
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has said he agrees with Brown, though police Chief George Gascon has said he would like to find a way for those arrested for minor crimes to be exempted from the program.
Hennessey today drew on new documents released by ICE on Aug. 17, which stated that jurisdictions with concerns about Secure Communities should formally notify ICE and the state law enforcement agency that receives the fingerprints in writing.
“Upon receipt of that information, ICE will request a meeting with federal partners, the jurisdiction, and the state to discuss any issues and come to a resolution, which may include adjusting the jurisdiction’s activation date in or removing the jurisdiction from the deployment plan,” the agency stated.
“I did all that,” said Hennessey. He said that an ICE official in Washington, D.C., had initially told him by phone there was no way for San Francisco to opt out.
“No meeting was held, no meeting was called, and really they did not give me the courtesy of a written response,” Hennessey said.
Hennessey sent letters Tuesday to ICE and Brown reiterating his request for San Francisco to opt out of Secure Communities.
ICE regional spokeswoman Virginia Kice responded today in a statement that they will now consider Hennessey’s request.
“Once ICE receives the correspondence (from Hennessey) we will review the request and convene a meeting with the other agencies involved…to discuss the sheriff’s specific issues and concerns,” Kice said.
“Based upon those discussions, ICE and its partners will examine the options and seek a feasible resolution, which may include changing the jurisdiction’s activation status,” she said.
Kice said that nationwide, none of the locales in which Secure Communities has been implemented have yet opted out.
Secure Communities “is voluntary, not mandatory,” said Angela Chan, an attorney with San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus and also a member of the city’s Police Commission. “We have known this all along.”
Chan and other immigration rights advocates spoke during the conference call about the need for clarity from ICE.
“It’s ICE’s turn to follow through and allow San Francisco to opt out,” Chan said.
ICE statistics released today showed that between June 8 and July 31, 280 fingerprint matches with newly booked San Francisco County Jail inmates had been made with ICE’s immigration database. Of those, 89 people were booked into ICE custody, 25 of whom had been previously convicted of serious crimes and 39 of whom had otherwise non-criminal backgrounds.
Ten people have since been deported from San Francisco, six of whom had non-criminal backgrounds and only one of whom had been convicted of a serious crime, according to ICE.
Kice stressed that those with non-criminal histories may still have had “extensive” histories of immigration-related arrests, which she said are typically handled administratively.
Additionally, ICE has said that, because Secure Communities is still relatively new, many people convicted or charged of serious crimes are still in prison or their cases are working their way through the criminal justice system, after which they could face deportation proceedings.