WASHINGTON & SANTA FE, NM (By ― A deportation program central to the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement strategy has led disproportionately to the removal of Hispanic immigrants and to arrests by immigration authorities of hundreds of United States citizens, according to a report by two law schools using new, in-depth official data on deportation cases.
The report also found about a third of around 226,000 immigrants who have been deported under the program, known as Secure Communities, had spouses or children who were United States citizens, suggesting a broad impact from those removals on Americans in Hispanic communities.
The report, to be released Wednesday, is the first analysis of deportations under the Secure Communities program based on data about individual cases, which was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the University of California, Berkeley, law school and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.
The Secure Communities program has drawn intense criticism from immigrant communities and from some state and local officials, who have said it led to deportations of many immigrants who were not dangerous offenders and eroded trust between the communities and local police.
Obama administration officials have just as vigorously defended the program. On Tuesday, immigration officials said the latest deportation figures show Secure Communities and the Obama administration’s larger strategy are working, announcing they had deported a total of 396,906 foreigners over the last year, a record number in the last decade.
The officials said that 55 percent of the immigrants deported were criminal convicts, including 51,620 people convicted of felonies like homicide, drug trafficking and sexual offenses. The results were an 89 percent increase in deportations of criminals since the beginning of the Obama administration, the officials said. Of the remaining undocumented immigrants deported, the great majority were arrested soon after they crossed the border illegally or had returned illegally after being deported, officials said.
“We came into office focused on creating a smart enforcement system by setting a rational system of priorities, and we have done that,” John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said on Tuesday. “We said criminal offenders would be our highest priority, and lo and behold, they are the highest priority.”
Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of anyone booked after arrest by local police are checked against F.B.I. criminal databases and also against Department of Homeland Security databases, which record immigration violations. Initiated in 2008, the program has been expanded by the Obama administration to more than 1,500 jurisdictions, and officials have said they will extend it nationwide by 2013.
In a random sample provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of 375 deportation cases under the program analyzed by the law schools, researchers found five cases of United States citizens held by immigration agents, with no clear reason specified in the records. Although the number of citizens is small, their presence in the sample raised concerns because immigration authorities do not have legal powers to prosecute or deport Americans.
“If Secure Communities was working properly,” the report said, a match under the program “should never result in the apprehension” of a citizen. Based on the sample, the researchers estimated at least 680 United States citizens had been held under the program. No Americans were ever placed in immigration detention, the report found.
Administration officials strongly rejected the report’s findings, saying they were not an accurate description of the program. “Any suggestion we are knowingly arresting or detaining U.S. citizens would be false and a misrepresentation,” Mr. Morton said.
The officials said some American citizens arrested by local police could be flagged in a Secure Communities match because the department’s fingerprint databases include immigration violations and also positive histories of immigrants who applied for legal status or naturalized to become American citizens. Immigration agents might hold a foreign-born person already arrested by local police while they were verifying the immigrant’s legal status or American citizenship, they said.
“Wherever we determine someone is a citizen we don’t detain and remove that person, because we don’t have that power,” Mr. Morton said. But he added, “It would be irresponsible for us not to investigate someone who is suspected of a crime and has some record of being foreign born.”
The researchers said the presence of citizens among deportation cases indicated the program did not have adequate procedures to avoid the arrest of Americans and others who could or should not be deported.
“The Secure Communities protocol too often is arrest first and investigate later, and is not what the Constitution dictates,” said Peter L. Markowitz, a professor of immigration law at the Cardozo law school and an author of the report. The other authors were Aarti Kohli and Lisa Chavez of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at the Berkeley law school.
“If this is the quality of due process with regard to U.S. citizens,” Mr. Markowitz said, “we should all be terrified with regard to immigrants who are targets of immigration enforcement.”
The report found 93 percent of immigrants arrested under Secure Communities were Hispanics, although Hispanic immigrants are only about two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants in the United States.