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Inspector general asked to investigate alleged misconduct by federal immigration officials

April 28, 2011 |  1:07 pm

Rep. Zoe Lofgren in 2007. A California congresswoman Thursday called for an investigation into "misconduct, including possible violations of criminal law,” by federal immigration officials who misled local governments about a sweeping enforcement program that purported to prioritize violent convicted criminals for deportation.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) wrote that federal officials made “false and misleading statements” to local and state governments and members of Congress about the implementation of the so-called Secure Communities program. Other statements “were made recklessly,” Lofgren wrote, “knowing that the statements were ambiguous and likely to create confusion.”

At issue is whether local agencies could decline to participate in the program, first launched in 2008.

Under the program, fingerprints of all inmates booked into local jails, routinely cross-checked with the FBI’s criminal database, are then forwarded by that agency to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be screened for immigration status.
Santa Clara and San Francisco counties in California and Cook County in Illinois are among those local jurisdictions that have sought to opt out of the program because of concerns that it would ensnare too many low-level offenders or those arrested but never charged with crimes. Officials worry that this in turn would hurt community policing efforts.

ICE and Homeland Security officials repeatedly told local governments that they could decline to participate in Secure Communities, reiterating that position in letters to Lofgren last fall. But internal correspondence shows they knew the program would be implemented nationwide by 2013 regardless of opposition.

Lofgren said officials devised "a counter-intuitive and misleading definition of the term 'opt out,' " claiming that it meant local jurisdictions would not receive the results of immigration screens, not that they could prevent their fingerprint data from being shared with ICE.

"It is unacceptable for government officials to essentially lie to local governments, Members of Congress, and the public," Lofgren wrote, calling it "critically important" that any findings of misconduct "result in real consequences."

Also Thursday, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) joined Lofgren’s call for an investigation, saying in a statement that the internal emails “shed light on the fact that DHS has tried to coerce states and localities into participating instead of addressing their concerns about the program’s impact on community policing and crime fighting.”

Menendez also called on Homeland Security officials to “limit the program to individuals convicted of serious criminal offenses,” saying “local police officers, who are on the front line of crime fighting and protecting our community, should be able to decide whether the program helps or hurts their number one priority of fighting crime.”

A Homeland Security official told The Times last week that the program “is not voluntary and never has been,” noting that ICE could have done a better job of communicating that. In a visit to the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the issue “a misunderstanding from the get-go.”

But Lofgren and Menendez contend the emails show intentional efforts to mislead.

Recently released ICE data show that while the program purports to prioritize the deportation of convicted violent offenders such as murderers, rapists and robbers, more than half of those targeted for removal so far have either not been convicted of the crime for which they were arrested or committed misdemeanors.

The program received broad backing from Democrats, who funded its expansion because of its focus on serious felons.

“We specifically told the Obama administration, ‘We hear from sheriffs every day that our jails are full of hardened criminals, and you’re doing raids on meat packing plants,’” a senior Democratic aide said. “We’re trying to make it the program it was supposed to be.”

Meanwhile, a California Assembly bill that seeks to limit the program to convicted felons and make it optional for local governments was passed by the public safety committee Tuesday on a 5-2 vote.


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-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

Photo: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) in 2007. Credit: Haraz Ghanbari / Associated Press