Six months after Secure Communities was activated in Massachusetts, an exclusive FOX Undercover investigation finds that half of the immigrants identified and deported because of the controversial federal program weren't convicted of crimes but were targeted because of immigration problems.
Ramiro Diaz, arrested at his East Boston home this past summer by immigration authorities, is typical. He was arrested by local police for driving without a license, and once he was booked his fingerprints were automatically sent to immigration authorities.
Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of everyone arrested locally are automatically sent to federal immigration authorities to be checked against immigration databases. If a match is made, it's up to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, to decide whether to detain and try to deport the person arrested.
In Diaz's case, ICE moved in because he had been deported five times before. Since his arrest this past summer, he's been returned to Mexico again -- the sixth time.
FOX Undercover was on hand when he was arrested, and through a translator he complained of being targeted.
"He admits he's here illegally," the translator, an ICE agent, said. "He says that criminals should be the main focus. He's not a drug trafficker. He's not into child molesting. He's here to work and he is very upset that we're here today."
ICE records show he's typical of a large portion of immigrants that ICE has deported so far under Secure Communities. Of the 560 immigrants deported this year through the end of August, 281 had immigration problems like having been deported before, not criminal convictions.
"I see that the vast majority are not violent dangerous people but people who might have an old deportation order, who have very minor criminal records like operating without a license," said immigration attorney Jeffrey Rubin.
Rubin represents one client who was arrested for driving without a license and then was picked up by ICE because he had ignored a 20-year-old deportation order issued by a federal judge.
"The community is not more secure without him on the street," Rubin said.
"What do you say to people that say they're illegal, too bad, get them out of here?" FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked him.
"These are real people, they play a real role in their lives and they all say too bad until it's somebody they know," Rubin replied.
So far this year through Aug. 31, Secure Communities identified 6,666 immigrants among all those arrested in Massachusetts, many of them likely illegal. The program was activated in Massachusetts on May 15 except in Boston, where it had been in place since 2006. Suffolk County, which Boston dominates in terms of size, had by far the most Secure Communities hits.
To try and assuage state and local leaders, ICE has touted that the program is meant to identify and deport violent criminals with records containing so-called level one crimes.
A now-retired ICE official in New England, Bruce Chadbourne, told FOX Undercover in 2010, "Our goal is to pick up those who are priorities, which are level ones, who are convicted for serious, heinous crimes -- murder, rape, armed robbery, things like that."
The coming of Secure Communities to Massachusetts and other states sparked widespread protests by activists who fear it will lead local police to profile immigrants, arresting them for dubious reasons knowing that immigration authorities will be alerted. Activists and some police chiefs also warned that it would drive a wedge between immigration communities and local police, making immigrants reluctant to cooperate with police or even report crimes for fear of being deported.
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes was one of the most vocal critics in the law enforcement community. Since the program's activation, his department has kept careful track of each person his officers have arrested who have then been ordered held by ICE for possible deportation.
"Has it gone after violent criminals?" Beaudet asked Kyes.
"One-third have been considered violent. The other two-thirds were individuals who were arrested for either felonies that weren't violent or low level misdemeanors."
In all, ICE has asked Chelsea police to detain 15 people, a far lower number than Kyes originally expected and feared. Chelsea police have asked ICE why detainers were issued in each case where it's not evident, and Kyes says they are being held for immigration violations.
Kyes says he has no problem with that since it fits ICE's guidelines, which are not only published on the Internet but which were relayed to police officials who met with ICE.
"So far there have been no deviating issues that would cause us to really stand up and start a campaign to try and go against it at this point," he said.
Gov. Deval Patrick at one point did stand up against Secure Communities, saying he didn't want it in Massachusetts. But ICE made clear that federal authorities were going to roll it out here and in other states anyway, regardless of state and local cooperation.
"We just wanted to make sure the most violent people are targeted and that people were taken in appropriately," said Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan.
But after being told of FOX Undercover's findings, Heffernan say she is concerned to learn that so many immigrants targeted by ICE weren't violent offenders.
"With the resources ICE has available to it, are the most violent offenders the people you are most going after?" Heffernan said.
"It seems like the answer is no?" Beaudet said.
"You'll have to speak to ICE about that but your statistics are very telling," Heffernan said.
"Would you take another look at the program?" Beaudet asked.
"Yes, I think we should," Heffernan replied. "I think we owe the public a look at what the statistics are bearing out."
ICE points out that they have always maintained that they were going to target immigrants who have ignored deportation orders and other serious immigration offenses.
"Prioritization of these individuals also enhances border security and
promotes the integrity of the immigration enforcement system," ICE said in a statement.
The agency also points out that the statistics can be misleading because someone arrested for a violent crime but deported before conviction is still counted as a non-criminal.
And ICE and others expect the proportion of convicted immigrants to rise as immigrants currently serving jail sentences are let out of prison and then turned over to ICE.