Hudson Valley deportations spike with federal program

An illegal immigrant is fingerprinted as part of An illegal immigrant is fingerprinted as part of processing in order to create or update a file on that immigrant at Tucson Sector U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters. (Aug. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: AP Photo AP

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A third of New York State's crime-prompted deportations over the past year came from the Hudson Valley, according to data obtained by Newsday.

The U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement data show that since the Hudson Valley region began participating in the Secure Communities program in early 2011, 369 illegal immigrants have been deported from Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Dutchess and Ulster counties.

Statewide, federal authorities have deported 1,254 illegal immigrants over the same period.

"We judge an individual case on the merits of that case, not the geographic area someone is encountered in," said Ross Feinstein, an ICE spokesman. "We want to make sure an individual we deport falls into our priorities."

The Secure Communities Act began in about a dozen test jurisdictions in 2008, and has since expanded to more than 3,000 jurisdictions across the country, according to ICE. The heart of the program: fingerprints from every arrest are entered into an FBI database, and under Secure Communities the FBI shares that data with ICE.

If a person has a criminal conviction or is in the country illegally, ICE reviews the case and decides whether that person should be deported. People deemed a threat to national security or who have serious felony convictions -- like murder, rape or sexual abuse -- are prioritized for deportation, but those who have returned to the country after an earlier deportation are also a priority, according to the agency.

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Counties like Westchester, Nassau, with 181 deportations, and Suffolk, with 325, have the greatest numbers of deportation cases outside of New York City because those counties are more populous. Suffolk is the state's most populous county outside New York City, and Westchester trails only Suffolk and Nassau. That means more arrests and more fingerprints matched against DHS records.

Balancing act

For law enforcement, it's a compromise that takes into account limited resources as well as the political ambiguity associated with enforcing immigration laws. ICE has the resources to deport only about 400,000 illegal immigrants per year, Feinstein said, and local police agencies for the most part do not participate in immigration enforcement efforts.

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In communities like Port Chester, where almost 60 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic and undocumented immigrants are a fact of life, local police have higher priorities, cops say.

If a person is stopped or pulled over, "our policy is, we don't ask" about legal status, Port Chester Lt. James Ladeairous said.

That's because the majority of the department's call volume is associated with the immigrant community, and Ladeairous said police want all victims -- regardless of legal status -- to feel comfortable reporting crimes without fearing they'll be deported.

Westchester County police don't check the immigration statuses of people they arrest, nor do they check status during traffic stops, spokesman Kieran O'Leary said. Only in unusual circumstances do county police seek to determine a person's immigration status, and those situations are "very rare," O'Leary said.

"There are occasions, however, where ICE has lodged a detainer against an individual and that detainer may show up when the person's information is run in the computer," O'Leary wrote in response to a Newsday inquiry. "This is similar to how an arrest warrant lodged by another agency for a criminal offense would show up during a license check. If there is an ICE detainer or any arrest warrant, we would take the person into custody."

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Detainers allow local police to hold a person for up to 48 hours before handing them over to federal authorities.

'Sensible priorities'

Secure Communities, according to ICE, is all about "sensible priorities" -- recognizing that law enforcement doesn't have the resources to address the 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, the federal agency turned its focus to immigrants who are criminal offenders and "repeat violators who game the immigration system."

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Federal law enforcement officials believe the program is working. In 2011, ICE removed 216,698 "criminal aliens," an increase of 89 percent since 2008.

Opponents of the program say it has a chilling effect on immigrant populations. Betsy Palmieri, executive director of the Hudson Valley Community Coalition, said her organization hears concerns from people who have lived in the U.S. for decades, as well as immigrants who have arrived more recently.

The Hudson Valley Community Coalition is a member organization of the New York Immigration Coalition, a statewide advocacy group.

That fear of being deported, Palmieri said, can keep wives from reporting abusive husbands, or children from reporting negligent parents.

"Some communities are better than others, but there are places in the Hudson Valley where people are afraid to report a crime, they're afraid to report domestic abuse or assault and battery, because they don't want to put themselves or somebody else in danger," Palmieri said. "They may not be aware that there are protections or alternatives for them in domestic violence cases."

Of the 181 illegal immigrants deported in Westchester County last year, 117 were criminal convicts, 60 were "serious" violators of immigration law, and four were simply undocumented, the data shows. Likewise, in Rockland County 70 out of 77 deported immigrants were convicts or people who re-entered the country after they were deported previously.

Agents consider things like criminal history and family ties in the U.S. before deciding whether to remove a person from the country, according to ICE. Immigrants who are deported on lesser offenses may still be eligible for "voluntary" return to the U.S. through the legal immigration process.

The program has its detractors, among them New York politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Earlier this year, explaining why she opposed New York City's participation in the program, Quinn said it "leads to the deportation of too many immigrants who pose no public safety threat to the city or state of New York or to our country at all."

In part due to that resistance, New York City joined Safer Communities in mid-May, more than a year after the surrounding suburban communities. In 46 days of participation, 93 illegal immigrants from New York City were deported.

The Hudson Valley Community Coalition has also dealt with cases involving minor offenses triggering the deportation process, even noncriminal violation-level offenses, Palmieri said.

"No matter what they get picked up for they're going to be run through the database," she said.

And in California, lawmakers passed the TRUST Act, which would prevent ICE agents from putting detainers on immigrant criminal offenders unless they're convicted of felonies or so-called "serious" crimes. Advocates say the law, which is awaiting California Gov. Jerry Brown's signature, is necessary to prevent illegal immigrants from losing trust in police. They also accuse federal authorities of deporting immigrants convicted of lesser crimes.

Similar rationale was used in 2011 when Cuomo tried unsuccessfully to suspend New York's participation in the program. Federal authorities said Cuomo couldn't pull the state out of the program -- the foundation, ICE and DHS officials said, is simply sharing information between the FBI and DHS, a step that was mandated by Congress in 2002.

Seventy-four percent of people deported under the program nationwide have criminal convictions, and 95 percent are repeat violators, criminal convicts or both, according to ICE.

"Secure Communities has proven to be the single most valuable tool in allowing the agency to eliminate the ad hoc approach of the past and focus on criminal aliens and repeat immigration law violators," the agency said in a statement.

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