In each of the last three years, the United States has deported nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants -- the highest rate in our nation's history.

The government's dirty secret, however, is that a relatively small percentage of the record deportations in the 2011 fiscal year involved violent criminals or others who pose a danger to the community. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year initiated a policy of "prosecutorial discretion" that would exempt some "low-priority" illegal immigrants from deportation, the results have been disappointing. And local families continue to suffer the consequences of a dysfunctional immigration system.

Most of the people who were deported were hardworking landscapers, domestics, dishwashers, busboys and unskilled laborers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time or didn't have the money to hire a good lawyer.

One of the most effective tools used by immigration authorities to meet their 400,000 annual goal is Secure Communities, an ICE program that casts a wide net over the noncitizen population. While Secure Communities catches a significant number of criminal aliens, its net traps mostly minnows, not sharks.

One of those minnows was Wilmer Mata, the young Salvadoran man from Brentwood featured in Newsday on Sept. 2. He was stopped by police because of an expired inspection sticker. Mata apparently had no previous criminal record, but he did have an outstanding 2006 deportation order.

Like Mata, many of the detainees are "absconders" -- illegal immigrants who, whether out of fear or lack of notice, failed to report for their immigration hearings -- and foreign nationals with relatively minor, nonviolent criminal records for such infractions as driving violations, false identification, obstruction of justice, marijuana possession and the like.

When Nassau and Suffolk county police have probable cause to apprehend a suspect, no matter how minor the violation, they generally check a federal crime database. If the noncitizen suspect has a prior deportation order or has been convicted of a so-called aggravated felony, he or she is transferred immediately to ICE custody, and is usually deported expeditiously.

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In New York, the Secure Communities initiative has led to 1,254 deportations since it went into effect 18 months ago. Of that number, Long Island and Westchester County accounted for 58 percent of all immigrants deported.

Why does our area lead the state? Because it is home to a large population of illegal immigrants, mostly from Central and South America. Further, most of the database hits are the result of traffic violations. In the city, illegal immigrants can keep a low profile by taking the subway and buses. In the suburbs, it is virtually impossible to get around without a car.

ICE statistics show that in February 2011, only 22 percent of the 6,000 individuals deported nationwide through Secure Communities were "high-level offenders," and 28 percent had no criminal record at all. It's worth remembering that crossing the border illegally is a civil violation; illegal re-entry after a deportation order is a felony. Relatively few of Long Island's 548 immigrants caught in the Secure Communities dragnet were gang members, drug traffickers and violent criminals -- even though those are a top priority for ICE.

Over the past 17 years, I've witnessed the tragic consequences of blind policies that tear apart mixed-status families, which usually include children and/or spouses who are U.S. citizens. Deportation is an extreme form of punishment, with consequences far greater than a jail sentence. When a breadwinner is deported, families often break up, and children are sent to live with relatives or foster care. So unless we revoke the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil, it's going to be impossible to just "deport the illegals." And revoking birthright citizenship would be a terrible idea, creating a permanent underclass that is contrary to our country's finest democratic traditions.

Secure Communities does a very effective job of identifying individuals with prior criminal records and deportation orders, but the unintended consequence is that many innocent people -- including U.S. citizen children and single mothers -- are suffering irreparable harm. ICE has the right idea to prioritize its enforcement efforts, but it needs a more finely tailored dragnet.