Local police are enlisted to help ferret out uninvited visitors

The Obama administration is expanding an effort to check the populations of local jails for illegal immigrants, a move that could significantly expand the number facing deportation hearings. Currently, many local police jurisdictions lack either the time or the resources to verify the immigration status of those in custody.

The Secure Communities program, which began last year as a pilot study, will expand into all the country’s jails by 2013. It allows law enforcement officials to automatically match fingerprints against federal immigration databases so that those in the country without authorization will face deportation when they complete their jail terms. Law enforcement officials already verify the immigration status of those in federal and state prisons. Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates the number of incarcerated criminal aliens in the United States at between 300,000 and 450,000 people.

Currently, everyone arrested and booked into a local jail is fingerprinted, and the prints are run through the FBI’s criminal history database. If local police want an immigration check, Department of Homeland Security personnel have to search their records manually. Last year, only 10 percent of the inmates in the country’s 3,000 local jails had their immigration status checked.

Since October, the program has operated on a trial basis in dozens of counties around the country and in such cities as Dallas, Boston, Houston, Miami, and Phoenix. Police officers in those jurisdictions fingerprint inmates and automatically query the prints through both DHS and FBI databases. The system does not identify those who have never been fingerprinted by government authorities.

Secure Communities is less controversial than other efforts that enlist local law enforcement to fight illegal immigration. That may be, immigration advocates say privately, because even the staunchest immigrants’ rights groups are wary of advocating too strongly for illegal immigrants who are behind bars, since it could undermine their larger efforts. Still, critics of the new program contend that it will lead to racial profiling. Last month, a coalition of immigrant rights groups wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and told her that the program “creates an incentive for police to arrest people on pretextual or minor crimes so that their immigration status can be checked.” The program “will likely lead to unlawful racial and ethnic profiling,” the coalition said.

Indeed, federal authorities are currently investigating several claims that similar programs, which essentially deputize police to enforce immigration law, have led to instances of racial profiling in certain jurisdictions. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office earlier this year found that one such program did reduce crime but also led to community concerns about racial profiling and police intimidation.

For their part, immigration officials say universal checks will reduce allegations of bias. “The fingerprints of all persons arrested and booked will be processed through the system, regardless of race, nationality, or ethnicity,” says David Venturella, the program’s executive director.