Central Texas leads state in deportation cases

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A federal program, recently implemented in all Texas counties, that scans local jails for undocumented immigrants with criminal records has spurred controversy because it might lead to racial profiling and underreporting of crime.

The program, known as Secure Communities, aims to find and deport undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes such as homicide and rape. When an individual is arrested and taken to a local jail, he or she must provide fingerprints that will run in a multi-agency database and be verified with FBI criminal history records.

Texas became the first border state to implement Secure Communities in all counties in September, with Travis County joining in June 2009. Harris County was the first in the nation to enact the program.

Gregory Palmore, ICE – Houston Field Office spokesman, said the U.S. Congress mandated the adoption of the program to all counties throughout the nation by 2013.

“We’re all on track, and there are no setbacks to implement it,” he said. “It will expand local law enforcement capabilities through the use of technology. There’s really nothing else required.”

Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the program could stifle undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes because of fears of deportation.

“It has an adverse effect on law enforcement because it discourages victims from reporting crime,” Harrington said. “If they don’t report crimes, they’re pretty prone to being victims again.”

The San Antonio federal immigration district, which includes Travis County, accounted for 14 percent of the nation’s total deportations in 2010. The district has outnumbered the other three Texas districts since it began in 2008 and has consistently deported more immigrants for non-criminal reasons than for convicted crimes.

UT sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez said it was hard to believe that Travis County has such a high deportation rate.

“Travis County has a relatively small immigrant population,” he said. “The largest numbers of deportations in a county would come from counties that have very high numbers of immigrants, and Travis County only has 188,075.”

Rodriguez said enforcement-approach policies such as Secure Communities result from the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass a comprehensive immigration bill.

“In the absence of such a bill, the trust of immigration policy becomes more dependent on enforcement, especially as the number of migrants entering the country without visas increases,” he said.

Esther Reyes, coordinator of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, said Secure Communities does not carry out the original mission of removing immigrants with serious convictions. In 2009, there were about 128,000 undocumented immigrants removed mostly for drug charges and traffic violations, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s website.

“Law enforcement officials are supposed to fight crime and provide safety to our communities,” Reyes said. “There’s a disconnect between the mission of this and how it’s being implemented.”

Denise Gilman, co-director of the School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, said the number of calls to the clinic usually increases when the government increases immigration enforcement, such as through the Secure Communities program. However, the clinic cannot represent them all because of limited resources.

“Fortunately while there is always a lot of anti-immigrant legislation, our leadership has mostly recognized that there are strong bonds between Texas and Mexico and that there are many generations of immigrants who we want to continue to welcome and work with,” Gilman said.