Last Night, a First Step Toward Solving, Or Not, the Problem With ICE's Secure Communities

Tuesday night, the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council's Task Force on Secure Communities (hold on, gotta catch my breath after that pithy title) held a pilot meeting at the Dallas County Community College's Bill J. Priest Campus to discuss ICE's controversial fingerprint screening program intended to snare dangerous undocumented immigrants. More than 150 were in attendance -- including some activists from Austin, but many locals too. And for two hours they aired their complaints about the program to the Task Force, which included Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, among others.

Vanna Slaughter, director of Catholic Charities in Dallas, told the Task Force she'd been the victim of a home invasion last October. An undocumented neighbor told her she didn't know about the attack, but added, "If I did, I'm not sure I would have called the police." It wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of humanity, but it characterized the fear pervading the immigrant community.

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo from Oak Cliff said ICE was after El Cucuy, a Mexican boogeyman that doesn't exist. A representative from the Greater Dallas Korean Chamber of Commerce said, "When I have 20 Korean businesses looted and robbed in Dallas, nobody spoke because if they spoke up, they could be fingerprinted and everything becomes known.

"This program is a tool to keep us quiet."

Teresa Martinez said she and her three other sisters go to school at A&M. But the father who supported them was deported to Mexico. "He won't see us graduate."

Under the administration of President Barack Obama, these kinds of stories have proliferated. ICE has had successive record-breaking years for deportation in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Those numbers should go up substantially as ICE seeks to bring online every local law enforcement agency in the country.

The Dallas County Sheriff's Department is one of more than a thousand activated jurisdictions participating in Secure Communities (S-Comm). For the uninitiated, here's how it works: Say a man is arrested for driving without a license by the Dallas Police. He gets booked into a Dallas County jail and his fingerprints are scanned and sent to the FBI's biometric database, which will determine if he has a criminal history. With S-Comm it doesn't stop there. The prints are also transmitted to an ICE database that ostensibly will return a hit if the guy is undocumented. If he is, ICE may issue a detainer and "request" 48 hours' notice before he's released on bond so they can pick him up. I used scare quotes back there because ICE recently changed the language on its I-287 detention forms. According to the updated language, holding him is no longer "required," it's "requested," which is a pretty fascinating change-up no doubt arrived at by the Justice Department given the language in the statute.

S-Comm's critics argue that the program has strayed from its purpose, which is to nab the bad guys. Instead, a majority of the undocumented immigrants caught up in S-Comm's dragnet are guilty of misdemeanors, hardly the worst of the worst that states and localities were sold when ICE initially sought participation. If Texas's huge immigrant population wasn't scared of the police before, it is now.

Tuesday night's Task Force meeting was supposed to address these concerns, which was odd since it wasn't even a week ago when ICE Director John Morton sent out a letter alerting the states that the agreements they'd negotiated with ICE were now void. It was a startling turnabout for a voluntary program that suddenly was anything of the sort, following the withdrawal of Massachusetts, Illinois and New York from S-Comm. Now, Morton reasoned, the FBI was handing the information sent to it by local law enforcement agencies to ICE anyway, so "no agreement with the state is legally necessary for one part of the federal government to share it with another part," he told the governors.

A pretty slick end-run, we gotta say.

But it's not like S-Comm doesn't place any strain on Dallas jails. They still "have" to hold onto the suspected undocumented immigrant for ICE for two days - not including weekends and federal holidays - on the county's dime. Unfair Park caught up with Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a member of the Task Force, after the meeting to get her thoughts. Given the fact that so many are caught up for petty misdemeanors, we asked, are you prepared to use discretion on who and who not to hold for ICE?

Valdez said she wasn't sure about the numbers for Dallas County, so we looked them up. ICE has three levels of criminality: Level 1, reserved for violent felons; Level 2, for non-violent felons or those with multiple misdemeanors; and Level 3, for misdemeanors. Of the nearly 6,000 detained by ICE in Dallas County since November 2008, only 1,528 were brought in on a Level 1 offense. Two-thirds of the Level 1 guys were actually deported. As for the use of discretion, she said she couldn't say at this point.

"We're here because there are problems," she said. "The county's too big and there's not enough room. We need the room in the jail for the people we're afraid of."

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Brantley Hargrove