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Controversial immigration enforcement program is target of lively protest

August 15, 2011 |  8:34 pm


Hundreds gathered in Los Angeles on Monday night for a chance to address a federal task force that will propose changes to a controversial immigration enforcement program.

Speaker after speaker at the lively meeting denounced the Secure Communities program, with most not calling for changes but for the program to end entirely.

“I’m here asking the government to end this Secure Communities program,” said Blanca Perez, an undocumented worker who was arrested for selling ice cream from a cart on the street and then placed into deportation proceedings. “I am not a criminal, nor am I a bad person. I am simply a person who wants to work.”

Dozens walked out of the hearing at St. Anne's Residential Facility, shouting “terminate the program!” and calling on task force members to resign.

The task force was formed in response to growing criticism of the Department of Homeland Security enforcement program, which shares fingerprints collected by state and local police to help immigration authorities identify and deport tens of thousands of people each year.

The program, which was touted as a way to identify and deport convicted felons, has been criticized for also ensnaring minor offenders, victims of domestic abuse and other crimes, as well as witnesses to crimes and people who were arrested but not convicted of offenses.

The group of 20 has been asked to recommend ways for Secure Communities to “focus on individuals who pose a threat to public safety, national security or to the integrity of the immigration system,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. Its members include police and sheriff’s officials, prosecutors, and immigration and community advocates. Two members – Arturo Venegas Jr., a retired Sacramento police chief, and Rosemary Welsh of Mercy Ministries of Laredo – were at the hearing to listen to testimony.

Although the task force was initially started to make recommendations about immigrants who were being deported for minor traffic offenses, Venegas said, several members have asked to broaden the scope.

“I know there’s a lot of concern about racial profiling and people who are getting deported who were never intended to be classified under Secure Communities,” he said, “so we’re taking whatever people have that’s a concern to them.”

Several undocumented men and women who are in deportation proceedings spoke at the hearing. A woman who was arrested after she called to report domestic violence and several workers arrested when their office was raided during an investigation into the employer said they were placed in deportation proceedings following their arrests despite their charges being dropped.

Several elected officials including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) sent representatives to read their messages at the hearing.

Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for Antonovich, said the supervisor supports the program and that concerns voiced about immigration enforcement programs in the past have not emerged.

In his statement, Ammiano, who authored proposed legislation to modify Secure Communities, denounced the program. He called for an end to it and for members of the task force to resign “rather than giving this program or department any false legitimacy.”

The statement resonated strongly with many of those in the audience and people soon began shouting “terminate the program!” and “renuncia!” (“resign!”).

“I’ve heard this message,” Venegas told the audience. “But we have an opportunity to make a recommendation. Whether or not something will actually be done, I can’t say. I’m not in charge of that.”

Several audience members walked out of the meeting but a few dozen remained to offer their testimony.


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--Paloma Esquivel

Photo: Demostrators were picketing in front of St. Anne's Residential Facility, where Homeland Security advisory council's Task Force on Secure Communities was holding a hearing. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images.