Debate Intensifies Over Deportations

Debate Intensifies Over Deportations


HOUSTON — The Obama administration is vastly expanding a federal effort begun under President George W. Bush to identify and deport illegal immigrants held in local jails. But here in the city where the effort got a trial start eight months ago, people on each side of the immigration debate have found fault with it.

Under the effort, known as Secure Communities, local officials check every set of fingerprints taken at jails against those of people who have had a brush with federal immigration authorities; in the past, they could check only for a criminal history in the F.B.I. database. If a person turns out to be an illegal immigrant, the case is turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible deportation proceedings in addition to the criminal charges.

The Obama administration considers the trial program successful enough to pledge $195 million over the next year to expand the effort with an eye toward establishing it nationwide by late 2012, when it is projected to cost about $1 billion a year. It is now under way in 70 counties across the country, including those containing the cities of San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Miami and Durham, N.C.

“Before we had no idea who was deportable,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Gwen Carroll of Harris County, where Houston is located.

But the trial program’s experience here has raised difficult questions about its goals, critics say, and serves as a stern reminder of the political and practical challenges facing the larger rollout.

Federal officials say that while they are pleased with their new ability to identify illegal immigrants, they do not have enough agents to deport all of those identified. Over all, only a third of those identified in the first seven months of the program as foreign nationals — which includes people with visas and temporary residence cards as well as illegal immigrants — have been deported.

“We do have a limited amount of resources,” said David J. Venturella, the director of the federal program. “It’s our priority to focus on the more serious offenders.”

Proponents of stricter enforcement of immigration laws complain that by concentrating on people who pass through the jails, the government is letting too many other illegal immigrants off the hook. On the other side, advocacy groups for immigrants complain that the program has created a climate of fear and paranoia among Hispanics, hampering the police.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who favors stricter immigration enforcement, has said the focus on criminal offenders “will create a de facto amnesty” for the millions of illegal immigrants who do not have criminal records.

“We can prevent many of these crimes by deporting illegal immigrants before they have committed them, instead of waiting until after the fact,” he said, echoing the views of many hard-liners.

But Maria Jimenez, a longtime advocate for immigrants in Houston, said the Secure Communities program, along with a second federal program that allows certain local law enforcement officials to act as federal immigration agents, has done just what Mr. Smith and other conservatives want. “In casting the net so broadly,” she said, “it will be a de facto immigration enforcement program by local police.”

While federal officials say the purpose of the effort is to identify serious and violent criminals, immigrant advocates complain that the great majority of people deported so far under the trial program here were arrested for misdemeanor and nonviolent crimes.

In the first six months of the trial program in Harris County, the automatic fingerprint checks led to the deportation of 94 people accused of the highest level of felonies and 1,624 people accused of misdemeanors and various property crimes, federal officials said. In all, there were 5,300 matches with the immigration database.

“People are getting deported for even minor offenses like not having an ID or a driver’s license,” said Cesar Espinosa of America for All, a group that helps immigrants in Houston.

But what constitutes a minor offense is a matter of debate.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia of Harris County says he regards most of the people tagged for deportation as criminals, including those arrested for drunken driving and drug possession. Fewer than one in 10 have been charged with traffic offenses and other “Class C” misdemeanors under state law, Sheriff Garcia noted.

“We are taking people off the streets of Houston, off the streets of Harris County, who have indicated they are not interested in following the rules around here,” he said.

Support for deporting immigrants with criminal records grew in Houston after a city police officer, Rodney Johnson, was killed in 2006 by a felon who had been deported but returned. Last March, that sentiment reached a peak when a second officer, Rick Salter, was critically injured by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record.

On a recent morning, one young man who was arrested on charges of failing to provide information to the police slouched on a bench in the Harris County jail, while on the other side of a grate, Sheriff’s Deputy Sammie Rinehart scanned his immigration record.

A year ago, Deputy Rinehart said, it would have been nearly impossible to find out if he was in the country illegally because he had given officers a phony name. But after his fingerprints were taken using a computerized scanner and run through the government’s immigration database, they told a different story. He was really Carlos Bringas Nimrod, 22, of Mexico.

“I find about 10 to 12 names he’s used,” Deputy Rinehart said. “He’s got immigration charges — illegal entry. Most of his crimes have always been illegal entry.”

Mr. Bringas Nimrod was one of about 10 illegal immigrants the local police had locked up on misdemeanor charges that afternoon. One was Celio Velásquez, a 23-year-old construction worker from Honduras, who was accused of drunken driving and running over a volunteer firefighter with a car, making it necessary to amputate his legs.

Another was Jaime López, a 48-year-old Mexican citizen with a bloody bandage over one eye. He had been arrested on aggravated assault charges for the second time.

Jay K. Aiyer, a Houston immigration lawyer, said few people here disagree that dangerous criminals should be deported. But Mr. Aiyer said he had handled several cases in the last eight months in which illegal immigrants faced deportation proceedings after the state had dropped criminal charges.

But John T. Morton, the assistant secretary of homeland security in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, does not see the roundup of relatively harmless immigrants as a flaw.

“We are interested in identifying and removing all offenders if we can,” Mr. Morton said in an interview. “But we have limited resources, and in a world of limited resources we are focusing on violent serious offenders first.”