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Published: Thursday, 7/8/2010

Securing communities

Law enforcement agencies in Franklin, Cuyahoga, and Butler counties in Ohio have a new tool to help them identify and remove criminal immigrants from the United States. Critics fear it will lead to racial profiling. Proponents call it technology at its best. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Secure Communities is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program that gives local law enforcement officials the ability to run the fingerprints of people they arrest through federal immigration as well as criminal databases. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the Cincinnati Enquirer that more than 240,000 potentially deportable immigrants have been identified by the 400 jails in 24 states that have taken part in the program since October, 2008. Of these, nearly 31,000 have been removed from the United States.

Illegal immigration is a sensitive issue, especially since Arizona began allowing police to question the immigration status of residents on the dubious grounds of a "reasonable suspicion" they were in the country illegally. But fears that Secure Communities will be used as cover for racial or ethnic profiling - especially of Latinos - appear overblown.

Unlike the Arizona law that the U.S. Justice Department is challenging on constitutional grounds, the only fingerprints run through the federal immigration database under the Secure Communities program are those of people already booked into jail. Any surge in arrests of people with accents or brown skin, as one might expect in racial profiling, would be difficult to rationalize.

That doesn't mean the program couldn't be better. Immigration officials have stated that the focus of Secure Communities is on catching the most serious offenders, such as murderers, rapists, and kidnappers. But according to their own figures, the overwhelming majority of immigrants snared by the database check were guilty of much less serious crimes, such as minor drug offenses, burglary, and fraud.

According to the National Immigration Forum, about 5 percent of the hits in the database turn out to be American citizens. This could lead to the detention of innocent American citizens, which is unacceptable.

The Immigration Policy Center, an arm of the Washington-based American Immigration Council, says the program lacks sufficient oversight and a clear procedure for people detained in error to lodge complaints.

There always is the danger that laws designed to protect the public could lead to racial or ethnic profiling. The Secure Communities program is not exempt from that temptation, but it appears less susceptible to abuse than, for example, Arizona's new immigration law.

As long as local law enforcement officials are sensitive to the potential for abuse, there is no reason Secure Communities cannot be a useful aid that protects both U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.

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