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Controversial fingerprints program set for New York meets resistance

FILE: A New York City police officer dusts a vandalized telephone cable for fingerprints on a service pole in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn, New York.Reuters

A program that gives federal immigration officials access to the fingerprints of undocumented immigrants booked into local jails will start Tuesday across New York state despite staunch opposition from advocates and lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

A law-enforcement official familiar with the program, called Secure Communities, confirmed that New York City and 30 other jurisdictions would join the 31 communities that already have the program in place. Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester counties, among others, have participated in Secure Communities for more than a year.

Asked about the program at a Friday news conference, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said "we prefer that they not do that here."

"The federal government's position is that it's required under the law and they're doing it," he continued. "We're obviously complying. They're taking it automatically, actually. It's a policy decision. I think there's merit on both sides….We're complying to the extent that we have to."

Secure Communities aims at identifying and deporting illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes. But critics say it has resulted in the deportation of thousands of people who are accused of crimes but not convicted, and erodes the trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement.

Advocates and others argue that some immigrants may become hesitant to report crimes or act as witnesses, incorrectly believing they risk deportation just by speaking with police.

Already, the fingerprints of suspects in jail are sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Under the Secure Communities program, those fingerprints are also shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In an email, ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein said Secure Communities "has proven to be the single most valuable tool in allowing the agency to eliminate the ad hoc approach of the past and focus on criminal aliens and repeat immigration law violators."

"To date, Secure Communities has helped ICE remove more than 135,000 convicted criminal aliens, including more than 49,000 convicted of major violent offenses like murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children," he said.

The news of the program's launch startled lawmakers and immigration advocates who nearly a year ago hailed Cuomo's announcement that he was suspending the state's participation in Secure Communities. At the time, agreements signed with each state suggested that joining the program was voluntary.

Practically speaking, Cuomo's announcement did little. Although no new communities in New York have activated Secure Communities since then, those that were already using it continued to do so.

A spokesman for Cuomo said the office was monitoring the situation, first reported in the New York Daily News.

In August, a few months after Cuomo and other governors began threatening to opt out of the program, ICE Director John Morton sent a letter to governors terminating the agreements.

The agency describes Secure Communities as an information-sharing program between ICE and the FBI—rather than with local law enforcement—and therefore the federal government makes the decision on when and where to active it.

As of May 11, the program is active in 2,792 jurisdictions in 48 states and Puerto Rico. ICE expects to be nationwide by the end of 2013. Forty states have it statewide, including Connecticut and New Jersey. On Tuesday, Massachusetts, Wyoming and Arkansas will join New York with statewide rollouts.

Speaking on the radio Friday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said there will be a rally on City Hall's steps on Monday to urge the federal government to refrain from forcing the city's hand.

She also said the police were being put in a "terrible position."

"It's just so counter to what New York is about as an immigrant city," she added. "And I'm real proud of our mayor and our governor, who have all spoken out…. The police can't disregard the law at the end of the day, but it's a terrible thing to put them in when they should be focusing on real crime."

Until now, New York City would comply with an ICE request to hold a prisoner on Rikers Island only if the person previously had been convicted of a crime, had an outstanding criminal warrant, was a defendant in a pending case, was a gang member or possible terrorist or had previously or currently faced a final deportation order.

"We wish they would have looked at the process we developed here, which strikes the right balance by protecting public safety and national security while ensuring we remain immigrant-friendly," John Feinblatt, chief policy adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said in an e-mail.

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