MONTPELIER - A federal program aimed at identifying illegal immigrants who are arrested for crimes expanded to Vermont Tuesday, touching off opposition from advocacy groups for immigrants.
Those groups say the Secure Communities program was implemented without consulting state officials, and they fear it will destroy a trust that most of Vermont’s law enforcement community has worked to build with the immigrant community.
The program enables police to check the status of suspected illegal immigrants by sharing their fingerprints with the Department of Homeland Security.
The group Migrant Justice protested in Burlington Tuesday outside President Obama’s Vermont campaign headquarters.
The advocates contend the program could result in deportation of people stopped by police for offenses as minor as a broken taillight.
“For our communities, we know it’s going to make a big difference,’’ Migrant Justice organizer Natalia Fajardo said.
The Department of Homeland Security says the program is to identify people who have already been arrested for serious crimes. Under the program, when state and local law enforcement agencies send fingerprint records to the FBI to check for criminal histories, those records will be shared automatically with Homeland Security.
Keith Flynn, Vermont’s public safety commissioner, said the state did not have a choice about participating in the program, but concerns about people being caught up after minor brushes with the law are unfounded.
“This is only going to come into play when it results in an arrest when fingerprints are taken,’’ Flynn said. “The ordinary car stop wouldn’t result in fingerprints.’’
He said the state’s participation in the program would not affect the State Police policy of “bias free’’ policing, in which troopers do not ask about immigration status of people they come in contact with unless there has been criminal activity.
“It’s very important, the inroads we have made with the immigrant community,’’ Flynn said.
Last month, Homeland Security modified the way the program works so that suspected illegal immigrants arrested for minor traffic violations and who have no criminal histories will only be considered for detention if they are later convicted of those offenses.
Homeland Security says that since the Secure Communities program was implemented in its first jurisdiction in 2008, more than 135,000 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes have been deported. Of those, about 49,000 were convicted of violent crimes such as murder, rape, or the sexual abuse of children.
The program operates in 2,990 jurisdictions in 49 states and Puerto Rico. Maine is the only state it is not used.