Four U.S. citizens were erroneously arrested in Southern California recently through the federal immigration enforcement program called Secure Communities, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday.
The arrests offer another point of tension between immigrant rights groups and Homeland Security, especially after President Barack Obama's administration said the highly criticized local-federal immigration enforcement program would only focus on illegal immigrants with serious criminal records.
Secure Communities, administered by U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement, allows fingerprint analysis to identify illegal immigrants in county jails.
Immigrant right groups say Secure Communities can discourage immigrants from reporting crimes and can lead to the deportation of people who haven't been convicted of anything.
"We demand that the county and the city of Los Angeles stop collaborating with (ICE) and that the Obama Administration stop Secure Communities once and for all," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
According to the ACLU, three Hispanic men were arrested and put on immigration holds after being processed through Secure Communities in November, and a fourth one went through the same process in July.
One of the men, Antonio Montejano, said he was arrested Nov. 5 in Santa Monica and spent four days in jail after he forgot to pay for candy his kids ate while shopping at a local Sears store.
He was also arrested because a $10 bottle of perfume was not scanned, even though he bought $600 worth of merchandise, the ACLU said.
A Los Angeles County judge ordered Montejano's release, but he was kept jailed because of an immigration hold, the ACLU said.
In jail, no one believed he was a citizen, Montejano recounted, because he speaks with an accent. He said he has split his time between Mexico and the U.S.
He was released after the ACLU sent ICE Montejano's passport and birth certificate.
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the cases cited by the ACLU are "highly unusual with unique factual circumstances."
"Secure Communities is not designed and should not be used to detain U.S. citizens, and we work hand-in-hand with our state and local partners to ensure that it is used appropriately," she added.
Under Secure Communities, arrestee fingerprint information is checked against FBI criminal history records and biometrics-based immigration records kept by Homeland Security. If an irregularity is found, a "hold" is placed on a person, usually leading to deportation.
Montejano, and another citizen detained, Jose Velazquez, said they planned to sue for their incarceration.
In October, a study by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, found that ICE arrested more than 3,600 U.S. citizens through Secure Communities between April 2008 and April 2011.