Immigration officers detained more undocumented immigrants for deportation in Nassau and Suffolk counties than anywhere else in the state through the first 18 months of a federal information-sharing program.

Secure Communities, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, checks fingerprints and personal data of all people facing criminal charges against a federal database that tracks immigrants sought by the federal government.

In New York, the program has led to 1,254 deportations since it went into effect on Jan. 11, 2011. Long Island accounted for nearly 44 percent of all immigrants removed from the state since Nassau and Suffolk started participating in February 2011.

As of July 31, the most recent figures available, 548 Long Island immigrants had been turned over to ICE for deportation. The agency deported 325 people from Suffolk County and 223 from Nassau.

Westchester County, which has been in the program since February 2011, was the third most active New York jurisdiction, with 181 deportations. New York City, which became part of Secure Communities on May 15, has turned over 93 arrested immigrants to ICE.


Targets criminals

The program's goal is to expel "criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety and repeat immigration violators," according to a 2008 congressional mandate. The initiative has become a part of the broader national debate about illegal immigration.

"I fully support this program, which provides a cost-effective method of identifying and screening those who have already broken our nation's immigration laws," Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement.

Secure Communities, King said, screens fingerprints of every person arrested "without regard to potential prejudices against any individual or group." Some advocates and immigration attorneys say the program is too broad because it also snares those charged with minor criminal offenses.

"A good deal of the people removed do not rise to that high category of criminality," said Luis Valenzuela, director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, an Amityville organization. "The net is cast too wide."

The initiative relies on arrest information provided by police departments, but Nassau and Suffolk officials said they are not targeting undocumented immigrants. County arrest information is submitted through the state to an FBI database, which is reviewed by ICE for matches.

The Long Island counties were among the earliest adopters of Secure Communities. The last 31 of New York's 62 counties began participating in May.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced in June 2011 that he would suspend the state's participation, citing concerns about the program's impact in immigrant communities. But the program does not allow local governments to opt out. ICE proceeded on its own, citing the agency's mandate to enforce immigration law.

Alina Das, an immigration law professor at the New York University Law School in Manhattan, called Secure Communities a "problematic" program that fractures immigrant community relations with police departments.

"People are being flagged as soon as they are being arrested, and at that stage of the process, you have no idea of whether an individual will be found innocent or guilty," Das said.


Nationwide program

Federal immigration enforcement officials called Secure Communities an efficient and fair way to identify and prioritize cases that warrant deportation, replacing a haphazard approach where police would choose which cases were brought to the attention of federal authorities.

Nationally, the program has yielded more than 1 million matches that resulted in more than 212,000 deportations since it was launched in October 2008. It has been activated in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and several territories.

The program allows the agency to "focus on criminal aliens and repeat immigration law violators," said Ross Feinstein, an ICE spokesman in Washington, D.C.

According to ICE statistics, nationwide, 75 percent of the people detained for deportation through Secure Communities had committed felonies or misdemeanors, and another 20 percent had defied immigration court orders or returned illegally after deportation. Only 5 percent of those deported were in the database solely for being undocumented. On Long Island, 4 percent of those detained were held only for lack of immigration documentation.

"We don't deport every single person we encounter," Feinstein said. "The majority . . . fall into our priority categories."

The process starts with the filing of formal criminal charges, and cross-checking fingerprints and personal data with other databases. If there's a match, the case is referred to an ICE field office.

If an ICE officer determines an individual should be deported, the agency will transfer the person to a federal detention center. The centers closest to Long Island are in New Jersey.

Some of the detainees may be released if certain conditions are met. Those ordered deported can be removed from the United States as soon as their paperwork is processed.

Proponents of strong enforcement said Secure Communities doesn't go far enough because many caught in the program are allowed to stay. They call for deportation of all undocumented immigrants.

"If you have come here illegally, that in itself should be grounds for deportation," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group that supports reduced immigration levels. "The more people believe that they are likely to get caught and that there will be consequences, the less likely they will be to violate the law."


Harrowing experience

For immigrants caught in the program, the experience can be harrowing.

Wilmer Mata said he was going to a pharmacy in May when a Suffolk County police officer stopped him near his Brentwood home. Mata was driving a car with an expired inspection sticker and was taken into police custody for driving without a valid license, a misdemeanor.

ICE ran his fingerprints through the federal immigration database known as IDENT and found a match. Mata, 23, was held for more than two months at federal detention facilities in New Jersey.

His father, José Guevara, said he learned of his son's whereabouts a week after the arrest, but lost track of him as he moved through holding cells in Yaphank and Riverhead and detention facilities in Newark and Elizabeth in New Jersey.

Guevara, a legal permanent resident, wept as he told of how he had his son brought into the United States illegally in 2005 because he was harassed by gangs in their native Usulután in El Salvador. Once in the United States, the son found work at a factory and restaurants.

"He's a good boy who has never committed a crime," Guevara, 49, said in Spanish.

ICE officials would not discuss specifics of Mata's case because of privacy regulations, but agency spokesman Lou Martinez said federal officials had issued a deportation order for Mata in 2006, relating to his being caught entering the United States using an alias the previous year. Border patrol officers did not detain Mata at that time.

Mata was released last month from the Delaney Hall Detention Facility in Newark. He has to report once a month to an immigration officer in New York City and said he will seek temporary legal status through a deferred action program for young immigrants announced in June by President Barack Obama and enacted Aug. 15.

"I know we came [into the U.S.] the wrong way, but we did it because of difficulties and to help the family," Mata said in Spanish.


Critics list drawbacks

Victoria Campos, an immigration attorney with offices in Huntington Station and Bay Shore who is representing Mata, said she has seen more of her clients, even those with pending legal status petitions, picked up on minor offenses and turned over to ICE since the program started.

"It was a simple traffic stop that led to this," she said. "This is the type of case that probably would have gotten dismissed before."

Elizabeth Barna, a Manhattan attorney who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association for the region that includes New York City and Long Island, said the program has grown too rapidly.

"We want more safeguards in place for people who are not serious criminals," she said.

Fear of deportation keeps some crime victims and witnesses away from police, allowing criminals to prey on them, advocates argued. "If the police are perceived as being ICE enforcers, that makes all of us unsafe," said Valenzuela, of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance.

Nassau County Police Department spokesman Insp. Kenneth Lack said immigrants who come forward as crime victims or witnesses should not fear that will lead to deportation through Secure Communities.

"We come in contact with foreign nationals hundreds of times a day and we don't inquire about immigration [status] unless they have been arrested for a crime," Lack said.

A departmental advisory states that the Nassau police department "does not enforce federal immigration law. However, if you are arrested for a crime (such as DWI, petit larceny or assault) and you are a foreign national, the police department will transmit this information to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

Suffolk police policy prohibits officers from inquiring about the immigration status of victims, potential witnesses or people requesting police assistance, unless they are arrested, said Mark White, chief of support services for the Suffolk County Police Department.

"We are concerned about the community's feelings and reactions to the program," he said, "but we are not enforcers of immigration laws."



Secure Communities: By the numbers



Program started on Oct. 27, 2008

Immigrants deported: 212,315

Those with criminal convictions: 75%

Those held on prior deportation orders: 20%

Those held only for undocumented status: 5%



Became part of the program on Jan. 11, 2011

Deported: 1,254

Had criminal convictions: 62%

Had prior deportation orders: 29%

Had undocumented status only: 8%



Both counties joined the program in February 2011

Immigrants deported: 548

Had criminal convictions: 66%

Had prior deportation orders: 30%

Had undocumented status only: 4%



Became part of the program on Feb. 22, 2011

Immigrants deported: 325

Had criminal convictions: 62%

Had prior deportation orders: 34%

Had undocumented status only: 4%



Became part of the program on Feb. 8, 2011

Immigrants removed: 223

Had criminal convictions: 73%

Had prior deportation orders: 23%

Had undocumented status only: 4%



Became part of the program on May 15

Immigrants deported: 93

Had criminal convictions: 49%

Had prior deportation orders: 47%

Had undocumented status only: 3%



Became part of the program on Feb. 22, 2011

Immigrants deported: 181

Had criminal convictions: 65%

Had prior deportation orders: 33%

Had undocumented status only: 2%


Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Note: Figures are as of July 31, the most recent available

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