Federal immigration officials are deporting more immigrants in Massachusetts for civil violations than for serious crimes under a fingerprint-sharing program that expanded from Boston to the rest of the state last year.
As of December, only 45.6 percent of the 768 immigrants deported through the Secure Communities program since 2008 had criminal records, far below the national average of 76 percent and lower than states such as Arizona, New York, and Texas.
Advocates on both sides of the issue had expected the percentage of criminals deported to rise when Secure Communities was activated statewide last May over the objections of Governor Deval Patrick. Instead, the percentage of criminals declined, a trend that runs counter to the program’s top priority of catching serious criminals here illegally.
In Suffolk County, where the program officially launched in Boston in 2008, barely half of the 567 immigrants deported had criminal records, even though Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis has exhorted immigration officials to focus on serious criminals. In the 13 other counties that enrolled in Secure Communities in May, 29 percent of the 201 immigrants caught and deported had criminal records.
US immigration officials say it is too soon to judge the program and warned that it can take longer to deport criminals because they may have to await criminal hearings or serve prison time. Over time, they predict, the numbers will adjust closer to the national average. But advocates say the statistics are more likely to intensify immigrants’ reluctance to cooperate with police.
“People are terrified. Every time this Secure Communities comes up, people say, OK, who’s next?” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “We’re very concerned that the program has really crossed an alarming threshold in Massachusetts.”
Ross Feinstein, spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pointed out that the number of immigrants caught through the Secure Communities program in Massachusetts is up across the board, for both criminals and noncriminals.
He added that even the noncriminal deportees match ICE’s priorities because they have violated deportation orders, overstayed their visas, or sneaked back into the country after being deported.
“ICE’s prioritized approach has yielded significant results in Massachusetts,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Over time, the percentage of serious offenders removed through Secure Communities will continue to increase, as those convicted of misdemeanors will decrease.”
Secure Communities started in 2008, after a pilot in Boston, to boost public safety by allowing ICE to tap into the fingerprint records that state and local police send to the FBI after making an arrest.
Immigration officials say the system reduces racial profiling by checking the prints of everyone arrested, and allows them to place holds on illegal immigrants, often criminals, who might otherwise be released in the United States.
The Patrick administration, which has criticized ICE in the past for using the program to deport immigrants arrested for minor offenses but with no prior record, said it wants to see if the number of convicted criminals deported under the program increases over time. ICE has detainers on about 100 immigrants serving time or awaiting hearings in state jails and prisons, individuals the agency may try to deport once the criminal process is complete.
“We remain concerned about the effects of this federal program, but the numbers must reflect statewide implementation over a longer period of time before we can truly assess its impact,” said Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
Proponents of Secure Communities said they were unsure why the percentage of criminals deported in Massachusetts would be lower than other states. They said the program is helping to detect and deport thousands of serious criminals nationwide, including violent gang members, rapists, and child abusers.
“I’m a little surprised,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter controls on immigration. “This could be partly due to the fact that it’s new in the rest of the state.”
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who lobbied for the program’s expansion in Massachusetts, said the shift could reflect budget cuts in police departments that could limit investigations and arrests. He predicted the number of criminals deported would rise.
“The policy’s been made clear in Massachusetts,” he said. “The whole purpose of Secure Communities was to get these bad guys out of the neighborhoods and protect the people that are being victimized.”
Yet the proportion of criminals deported from Massachusetts remains far lower than other states. In Arizona, California, and Texas, more than three-fourths of those deported through Secure Communities had criminal records. In Minnesota, a state with a population size closer to Massachusetts that also launched the program last year, nearly 76 percent of deportees were criminals.
Advocates on both sides of the Secure Communities issue in Massachusetts expected the percentage of criminals deported to rise after the program went statewide, since federal immigration officials are now checking the fingerprints of everyone arrested from North Adams to Nantucket.
But the most recent ICE report shows that the newest counties to participate are far more likely to deport noncriminals. In Middlesex County, which includes Somerville, Cambridge, and Lowell, 79 percent of the 77 deportees had no criminal record. In Essex County, home to Lawrence and Lynn, 75 percent of the 48 deportees had no record.
Advocates for immigrants say Secure Communities is deporting immigrants who might soon be eligible to apply for legal residency if Republicans and Democrats forge an agreement on legislation to address the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
“It’s not only frustrating but it’s really sad,” said Heloisa Galvao, executive director of Brazilian Women’s Group in Boston. “Although we know that Obama was elected with the immigrant vote, the Latino vote, he says one thing and they’re doing something else.”
ICE officials say it has taken steps to focus attention on criminals. The agency no longer asks state and local police to detain immigrants arrested for minor traffic violations and has encouraged federal agents to make deporting criminals their top priority.
A few state and local officials, such as the Los Angeles County sheriff, have limited the types of immigrants they will detain for ICE to serious criminals, but state officials said Massachusetts has not taken similar action.
State Senator James Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, filed legislation in January that would limit the types of immigrants turned over to ICE to immigrants 18 and over and convicted or accused of a serious crime.
“I don’t think that Massachusetts should be using state and local resources, or law enforcement officers, to be enforcing immigration law,” Eldridge said.