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Is California the Next Secure Communities Battleground?

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We’ve reported on the attempts by three states – New York, Illinois and Massachusetts — to challenge the Obama administration’s controversial Secure Communities immigration program. Now one legislator has plans to push California to the forefront of the debate.

The goal of Secure Communities is to share fingerprint information between local and federal officials to identify and detain illegal immigrants who are also serious criminals. The Obama administration plans to make Secure Communities mandatory across the country by 2013.

But critics, like California Assembly member Tom Ammiano [D-San Francisco], say that low-level offenders, or people without records, are also being detained and deported under Secure Communities. Ammiano recently announced that he’s drafting a bill that would set a threshold for the most violent offenders and allow local communities “discretion to a point” when it comes to complying with ICE detainers. His spokesman told FRONTLINE that the goal of the legislation was to do what Secure Communities was originally designed for: deport serious criminals.

In 2011, about 31,000 deportation cases went before California courts; only 15 percent involved a criminal charge other than illegal re-entry into the United States. By comparison, 18 percent of deportations in 2010 and 20 percent of deportations in 2009 involved criminal charges. Nearly 6,500 people have been deported from the Bay Area, Ammiano’s district, in the past two years.

“States have their own ways of fighting back,” Ammiano told the Los Angeles Times

Recently, Ammiano gained a key ally in California: the Catholic Church. As January drew to a close, hundreds of people gathered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco to voice their opposition to Secure Communities. The protest, organized by Archbishop George Niederauer as an “interfaith gathering,” was billed as an attempt to pressure state leaders to reform California’s “participation in the deeply flawed” deportation program.

But not everyone in California is unhappy with with Secure Communities. The American Legion is encouraging its members to sign a petition for a ballot initiative that would “block liberal Bay Area counties from interfering with federal immigration prerogatives” and “require all counties to fully enforce Secure Communities.”

As policy, ICE doesn’t comment on pending legislation. But spokesperson Lori Haley issued the following statement to FRONTLINE:

ICE places detainers on aliens arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released from prisons/jails and into our communities. Even though some aliens may be arrested on minor criminal charges, they may also have more serious criminal backgrounds which disguise their true danger to society. Historically, some criminal aliens with ICE detainers, who have been mistakenly released to the streets rather than being turned over to ICE custody and placed in deportation proceedings, have subsequently committed more serious crimes.  Law enforcement agencies that honor ICE detainers ultimately help protect public safety. ICE anticipates that law enforcement agencies will comply with the detainer though ICE has not sought to compel compliance through legal proceedings. Jurisdictions that ignore detainers bear the risk of possible public safety risks.

Ammiano’s bill is expected to be introduced this spring.

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