Local police step up immigration enforcement

State and local police across the country didn't need the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding Arizona's "show me your papers" immigration law to begin turning people over to the federal government for deportation.

Since late 2007, they have helped identify nearly 20 percent of the nation's 1.6 million deportations — a trend that will likely accelerate.

The Obama administration plans to expand to every jurisdiction a program in which local police share fingerprints of those accused of breaking the law for federal officials to identify those they want to put into deportation proceedings.

The administration is making clear that federal authorities have always had — and will continue to have — the final say on who gets deported.

As debate has raged over the provision of the 2010 Arizona law, the federal government has been increasingly tapping the vastly superior presence of state and local police to identify illegal immigrants for deportation.

State and local police made about 150,000 arrests that resulted in deportation from late 2007 to late 2011 under a program that empowers specially trained local officers to enforce immigration laws. Deportations under that program peaked in 2009 but are falling sharply as the federal government phases it out.

In the fingerprinting program, state and local agencies are responsible for the vast majority of another roughly 150,000 deportations during that time. ICE scans prints of everyone booked into jails for non-immigration crimes and tells local police when they want someone held for deportation proceedings.

The combined efforts account for 288,997 of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's deportations from October 2007 through September 2011, or 18.7 percent of the total. And the number is growing each year.

In fiscal 2009, they accounted for 59,984 of 389,834, or only 15 percent, of deportations. In 2011, they were 105,849 of 396,906 deportations, or 27 percent.

A few police departments have crafted unique arrangements with the federal government that go even further. They include Escondido, a San Diego suburb of 140,000 people that has nine ICE employees at police headquarters.

Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher said they are targeting illegal immigrants who commit crimes. Those whose only offense is being in the country illegally won't be bothered by his officers, nor will any crime victims or witnesses.

"If you're not a criminal, you have nothing to fear," he said.

For the federal government and many of its law enforcement allies, the numbers reflect a carefully orchestrated policy to deport anyone who breaks laws while living in the U.S. illegally, especially violent criminals.

The Department of Homeland Security reiterated after Monday's Supreme Court ruling that its priorities are to deport people who pose a public safety threat, repeatedly violate immigration laws and recently crossed the border.

For critics, too many people with no criminal records or a history of minor offenses are getting ensnared.

The only mark against Mauricia Horta was a 1994 deportation.

In September 2008, she was captured after showing up at a police checkpoint in Escondido without a license or insurance. She was deported to Tijuana, Mexico. Two of her children are living illegally in the U.S., and she hasn't seen them since dropping them off at school that morning.

"I haven't killed anyone. I haven't robbed anyone. In that sense, I'm not a criminal," she said in her dark, sparsely furnished two-story home in Tijuana. "But I accept that I am a criminal for going to a country that isn't mine.

"I only went to improve my life," she said. "I'm a good person."

The fingerprint-sharing program, called Secure Communities, has spread to more than 3,000 local jurisdictions since it was launched in Harris County, Texas, in 2008. More than 15 million fingerprints had been scanned by the end of March, flagging nearly 900,000 with immigration records. Of those, 182,896 were deported.

Some governors and mayors balk at what they consider a heavy-handed intrusion on local turf, but ICE officials recently said their critics had no choice.

It plans to expand it to all state and local jurisdictions by next year, deciding the program would no longer be voluntary. In a nod to critics, it no longer plans to target people whose sole offense is a minor traffic violation until they are convicted and promised protections for witnesses and violent-crime victims.

Absent from the program are parts of Illinois and Alabama. Federal officials have said part of the delay in Alabama is pending federal litigation over the state's strict immigration law.

Another big driver of the trend is federally-trained police officers who can make immigration arrests. The 287(g) program — named for a section of a 1996 immigration law — was seldom used until a backlash against illegal immigration about six years ago prompted dozens of agencies to sign up, especially in the South.

That program is responsible for 145,360 deportations from October 2007 to September 2011, though ICE is phasing it out. On Monday, ICE canceled its agreements with seven Arizona agencies — a move that is expected to have little impact because most immigration arrests under the program take place in jails.

The Supreme Court decision preserved a provision that requires police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop for various reasons and whom they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. They would not be allowed, however, to arrest people on immigration violations.

A unique arrangement in Arizona allows local police to call a 24-hour ICE hotline with immigration queries about suspects, with 36 ICE agents assigned. ICE said those calls have resulted in 21,000 immigration arrests since 2006, though it's unclear how many resulted in deportation.

In Escondido, ICE employees participate in daily operational briefings at police headquarters. They show up at traffic stops, at parking lots where people are seen drinking alcohol and at homes where domestic violence is suspected.

For now, Horta expects she won't be raising her two children — a 17-year-old girl who lives with godparents in the San Francisco area and a 14-year-old boy who lives with her younger sister near San Diego. Horta said she wants them to join her in Mexico but they insist on staying in the U.S.

They may be eligible for President Barack Obama's new policy to grant work permits to some young illegal immigrants, she said.

"I understand and respect their decision," she said.


Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.