Fed security chief counters Gov’s claims on Secure Communities

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

Acknowledging a botched beginning to the federal Secure Communities program, the nation’s top homeland security official on Wednesday contradicted claims made by detractors and called the effort “the single best tool at focusing our immigration enforcement resources on criminals and egregious immigration law violators.”

“Termination of this program would do nothing to decrease the amount of enforcement. It would only weaken public safety, and move the immigration enforcement system back toward the ad hoc approach where non-criminal aliens are more likely to be removed than criminals,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in remarks delivered at American University.

Secure Communities, which has become the focal point of a heated debate in Massachusetts over illegal immigration, is a data-sharing program between the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security. Under the program, the FBI crosschecks its fingerprint database – which includes prints collected from police departments across the country – with immigration databases to identify illegal immigrants arrested by state and local police.

At the heart of criticism lobbed by Governor Patrick and advocates for the immigrant community are claims that the program fails to distinguish between serious, often violent offenders and those who may be in the country illegally but present no public safety threat. Napolitano took on those arguments during her speech, describing them as unfounded and contrary to reality.

“It makes sense to prioritize our finite resources on removing a Mexican citizen who is wanted for murder in his home country ahead of a Mexican national who is the sole provider for his American citizen spouse,” she said. “It makes sense to remove a Costa Rican man convicted of sexual assault against a minor before we spend the time and money to send a mother back to her violent and abusive husband in Jamaica, separating her from her American-born children; finally, it makes sense to prioritize resources on the removal of a Chinese man convicted of aggravated assault and weapons offenses before removing a 10th grade student who was brought to this country when he was a child.”

Napolitano’s comments put her directly at odds with Gov. Deval Patrick, who has argued the opposite: that Secure Communities’ focus on deporting arrested illegal immigrants would inadvertently net less serious offenders or those without criminal backgrounds at all. In the face of criticism from program supporters, Patrick has taken a hands-off approach to Secure Communities, pointing out that federal officials intend to expand it to every jurisdiction in the country by 2013 and that states have no say in the matter. He has also pointed out that Massachusetts already sends all fingerprints it collects to the FBI, which will share them with ICE as soon as Secure Communities is activated in Massachusetts.

“The only issue that Secure Communities is about is whether one federal agency can share information with another federal agency,” the governor said during a radio appearance last week. “They don’t need a governor to tell them that.”Patrick called the push for Secure Communities “a terrific political issue” that “stirs people up.” But he said his critics – including three Republican sheriffs who blasted Patrick at a State House press conference last week – are misguided.

“We already send all of our fingerprints to Washington. We sent all our convictions to Washington … The fingerprints go to the fingerprint people. ICE takes it from there. The federal government doesn’t need governors or sheriffs for that matter to, say, share information.” he said. “The interesting thing is, [the sheriffs] are doing nothing more than we are doing already, but with the big exception of grabbing headlines.”

Patrick’s critics, primarily Republicans, have ripped the governor, contending that his skepticism of the program has made Massachusetts a magnet for illegal immigrants. They frequently point to recent violent deaths in Massachusetts, allegedly at the hands of undocumented residents, as proof of the need for Secure Communities to come online in the Bay State.

Backers of the program say it is intended only to target the most serious offenders, often repeat violent criminals without legal residency in the country.

“The reality is that the immigration enforcement agencies will always encounter more aliens than they can possibly pursue in a given year. Secure Communities hasn’t increased the number of individuals who are removed, but it has helped change the composition – helping ICE to dramatically increase the number of convicted criminals and egregious immigration law violators,” Napolitano said, adding that the program now offers training to state and local law enforcement.

Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth) this week called the issue of illegal immigrants driving without licenses a “pretty prevalent problem on our streets.” During his South Shore radio program Monday night, Hedlund said, “The courts don’t want to do anything about it” and the police “can’t do anything about it because they don’t want to take the three hours it is to process someone if you arrest them.”

Saying “American” drivers arrested for driving without a license face surcharges and court appearances, Hedlund called it “just a crazy, crazy double standard right now.”

Hedlund expressed frustration that attempts by the state Senate to pass measures cracking down on driving by unlicensed individuals and other problems relating to illegal immigration have faltered. “We’ve passed all this stuff in the Senate, overwhelmingly, multiple times now,” he said. “The House doesn’t take it up and the governor’s against it.”

Napolitano said President Obama inherited a “broken immigration system” badly in need of reforms.

“Congress hasn’t acted and states continue to pass a patchwork of their own laws in an attempt to fill the void,” she said. “It is this Administration’s position that Congress needs to take up immigration reform once and for all. We have put forward our ideas and are ready to act quickly and collaboratively to support passage of reforms that make sense.”

Napolitano said the Obama administration has achieved “record levels” of immigration law enforcement while prioritizing removals of convicted criminals, recent border crossers, “egregious” immigration law violators and immigration fugitives.

Estimating 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, each with “dramatically” different stories, she added, “There has never been, nor will there be in these tight fiscal times, sufficient resources to remove all of those unlawfully in the country.”