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Originally published November 28, 2010 at 9:59 PM | Page modified November 28, 2010 at 9:59 PM

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State won't agree to national immigration program

Washington state has declined to sign an agreement that would allow the fingerprints of every person booked into local jails to be checked against a national immigration database.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington state has declined to sign an agreement that would allow the fingerprints of people booked into local jails to be checked against a national immigration database.

Immigration officials say the idea behind Secure Communities, a federal program rolling out across the country, is to identify, detain and eventually deport those subject to removal from the country, with a particular focus on those who have committed serious crimes.

But Secure Communities is controversial in some places where it operates, with immigrant advocates saying that it snags immigrants who've committed only minor offenses and could discourage people from reporting crimes to the police.

The program is in 788 jurisdictions across 34 states, including Oregon, Idaho and California, and in the past two years has led to the expulsion of some 46,800 individuals from the country.

The Department of Homeland Security, which runs Secure Communities through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division, said it will be in every jail nationwide by 2013.

Over the last year, ICE has been trying to reach agreements with the agency in each state that serves as that state's clearinghouse for fingerprint data. Any agreement with that agency would cover all local jurisdictions in the state.

In Washington, that agency is the State Patrol, which has chosen not to sign the agreement to activate Secure Communities here.

"We are a state law-enforcement agency, and we don't want to go down the road of being an immigration agency," Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said. "The chief and the governor are of the same mind on this."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Chris Gregoire said the governor has not yet made a "final determination."

Calkins also said that while the State Patrol hasn't signed the agreement, it won't prevent local jurisdictions that choose to participate from doing so.

But officials from ICE said Washington not only hasn't signed, but it has not granted permission for ICE to work with local jurisdictions to activate the program, as other states that have not signed the agreement have done.

Nonetheless, they say, by 2013 they will have the ability to activate the program everywhere, even in states like Washington where they have no signed agreements.

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Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates for stronger immigration enforcement, said Washington's position is wrongheaded political correctness.

Local authorities, he said, don't refuse to cooperate with other federal law-enforcement agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

"What possible justification can they have for not turning over this information that might be the one opportunity to catch someone who is really dangerous?" Mehlman asked. "They are just asking for some future tragedy."

Those who advocate for immigrants and worked with the state in evaluating the program said there are still too many unanswered questions about how it works.

ICE, they say, falsely promotes this as a program that targets only serious criminals. In reality, they point out, the fingerprints of those who become naturalized citizens or obtain their green cards are also in the immigration database along with those who might have encountered immigration officers for any number of other reasons — and a traffic violation that results in their arrest might land them in deportation proceedings.

Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said there also are concerns about any chilling effect the program might have. "Whenever you get local law enforcement involved in immigration enforcement in this way, immigrant-community members become afraid of coming forward and reporting crime they may have witnessed or been a victim to," Baron said.

ICE officials say there's no evidence that's happening and point out that only the fingerprints of people who have been arrested are submitted for screening.

ICE is phasing the program in, county by county, as it builds its infrastructure over the next few years, with immediate activation in those jurisdictions with the largest caseloads.

But it is facing pushback in some places.

In at least two jurisdictions in California, where the state's Department of Justice has signed the agreement with ICE, officials have inquired about opting out of participation.

San Francisco says the program violates its status as a sanctuary city, which forbids cooperation with ICE unless mandated by law.

ICE now says communities may not opt out, after earlier saying they would be allowed to.

Secure Communities expands on a program ICE already operates across the country that allows its officers to check the names of people who've been booked into jails and prisons against ICE's national database.

ICE then places a detainer on those deemed deportable, requesting that local law enforcement hold them for up to 48 hours until an ICE officer can pick the person up.

Secure Communities uses fingerprints instead of names. Currently, those prints, once collected at the local jails, are funneled into a state database and then to the FBI. Under the program, ICE accesses them from the FBI, checking them against its own databases for matches.

That kind of analysis is more immediate and eliminates the need to have an ICE officer check booking lists, a labor-intensive process that may not occur frequently in some rural areas, if at all.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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