Deportation program remains controversial

After being discovered through the federal Secure Communities program, Mexican national Jose Angel Lopez-Garcia was sentenced in New Haven’s U.S. District Court for illegal re-entry into the country on Friday and currently awaits deportation.

Federal officials cite the case as an example of the program’s merits, but state criminal justice officials questioned whether Lopez-Garcia’s crime, a traffic infraction, was serious enough to merit deportation — demonstrating the steep divide that still exist between the feds and the state over a program that critics claim undermines local policing. As the state justice department refuses certain detainment requests and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials continue to ramp up immigration enforcement through Secure Communities, it is unclear whether the program will ever be without controversy.

Secure Communities, which was implemented statewide on Feb. 22, allows ICE officials to check police fingerprints of criminal suspects against ICE and FBI databases in an effort to deport criminals residing in the country illegally. When ICE officials believe a suspect may be undocumented, they can issue a detainment request asking the state to hold the individual in custody pending deportation proceedings.

Twenty-seven-year old Lopez-Garcia had been deported from the U.S. on 10 previous occasions, most recently on Sept. 24 2010, only to re-enter the U.S. illegally each time. On June 10, he was arrested by Stamford police officers for a traffic infraction, and through Secure Communities he was identified as an illegal alien. Lopez-Garcia was then turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service and then the Department of Justice, where he was tried for illegal re-entry into the United States, said ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein.

“Under normal circumstances a minor traffic infraction that goes through Secure Communities is not a priority, but someone who has gone through 10 times prior is a serious offender,” Feinstein said. “He’s a repeat offender who has shown a complete disregard for the law, and now he’s a convicted felon.”

Pleading guilty before Judge Joan Margolis, Lopez-Garcia was sentenced to the time he had served in prison prior to the trial and now waits to be deported for the 11th time. Feinstein said the case is illustrative of how Secure Communities is working to keep the country safe while helping ICE manage resource constraints. He added that there are currently 11.2 million illegal aliens in the United States today, and with ICE to deport 400,000 people per year at most given staff and budget limitations, Secure Communities helps prioritize cases.

But while ICE continues to increase its use of Secure Communities, the program has endured strong criticism from Gov. Dannel Malloy, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Connecticut government officials. Members of the Latino community, state officials said, will be less likely to cooperate with law enforcement for fear of exposing friends or family residing in the country illegally.

In an effort to curb the implementation of Secure Communities in Connecticut, Malloy announced in March that state administrators would determine whether to honor each detainment request from ICE on a “case-by-case basis.” Mike Lawlor, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice said that today, a “checklist” is in place to review ICE detainment requests to ensure that only serious criminals are targeted.

“ICE claims they are only using this for serious crimes, but people can disagree about what fits that criteria,” Lawlor said. “Our local police have hard enough jobs in the first place. Add Secure Communities, and it gets impossible,”

Lawlor said ICE did not need to issue a detainment request for Lopez-Garcia because he was in prison awaiting trial, but he added that he believes state justice officials would have refused any such request.

New Haven officials have not let up on their criticism of the program either. City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said the program “is counterproductive to the relationships our police department has attempted to establish within immigrant communities, and essentially invalidates our police order that limits police questioning regarding immigration status during routine law enforcement. Secure Communities will not make our community more secure.”

To date, Lawlor said he estimates the state has refused 20 to 30 detainment requests from ICE since Febuary, adding that ICE “seems somewhat chastened” by the local criticism. But despite the pushback, Feinstein said the program is ramping up — between Secure Communities’ implementation at the beginning of this year and July 31, ICE has matched 3,893 fingerprints in Connecticut. He added that Secure Communities has led to 277 deportations in Connecticut, 12 of which were of individuals living in New Haven.

During 2011, ICE deported 396,000 individuals residing in the United States illegally.

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