Local governments cannot opt out of a federal program that checks the fingerprints of people who are arrested against a database to determine if they are illegal immigrants, the head of the U.S. immigration agency said Friday.
That's because the agreement is between the federal and state governments _ not the local governments.
Officials in Virginia's Arlington County, Washington, D.C., and Santa Clara County, Calif., have voted recently to opt out of the program, saying it could lead to racial profiling. San Francisco officials have attempted to get out of the program with no luck, and several other communities are debating whether they want to participate.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website says jurisdictions that do not wish to participate in the Secure Communities program can ask federal immigration officials to remove them from the program.
On Friday, ICE Director John Morton said that the agency would meet with the localities to discuss the issue, but in the end the agreement is with the state.
Suspects who are arrested for anything from a traffic violation to a violent crime have long been fingerprinted, and those fingerprints are run through a federal criminal background database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With Secure Communities, those fingerprints are automatically checked against immigration records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security to identify those who may be in the country illegally.
Since 2008, the program has been expanded to more than 650 jurisdictions in 32 states, with plans to incorporate every jurisdiction by 2013.
Morton stressed that even though the fingerprints are taken by local authorities, it's up to federal officials to detain or deport suspects.
"No one in the Department of Corrections, no one in Arlington County, no one in the other jurisdictions of Virginia is being asked to enforce federal immigration law," Morton said.
One quarter of Arlington County's residents was born in another country and one-third is multiracial, which adds to fears of racial profiling, said J. Walter Trejada, a member of the county's Board of Supervisors. The board voted unanimously last month to opt out of Secure Communities.
"The potential for racial profiling and for unscrupulous law enforcement people to utilize the Secure Communities as a way to intimidate people and cause fear is real," Trejada said.
San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey has challenged his city's participation in the program for months, and he likely will meet with ICE officials in November, sheriff's department spokeswoman Eileen Hirst said.
Other officials, such as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, have welcomed the program.
In Virginia, jurisdictions are required by state law to send fingerprints to state police to be run through the FBI database. Because the exchange happens at the federal level, that means localities can't opt out, Cuccinelli said.
"It is not a situation where Arlington's fingerprints can be treated differently," Cuccinelli said.
ICE credits the program for the removal of more than 40,000 criminal illegal immigrants, including more than 12,000 convicted of violent crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping.
ICE Secure Communities: http://www.ice.gov/secure_communities/