Fayette County

Program criticized for deporting non-violent illegal immigrants in Lexington

Since Lexington joined a federal program in October aimed at deporting illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes, 75.6 percent of the 41 people deported have been convicted of a minor crime or no crime at all.

Lexington's percentage of such deportations is well above the national average of 60 percent, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of a report on the program released by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on March 4.

There has been mounting national criticism in recent weeks of ICE's Secure Communities program, leading Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to abandon the initiative earlier this month.

In a May 4 letter to Marc Rapp, the acting assistant director of Secure Communities, Quinn said his state wants to withdraw because more than "30 percent of those deported from the United States, under the program, have never been convicted of any crime, much less a serious one."

Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government spokeswoman Susan Straub said the city has no plans to take similar action.

"We will continue to work with Homeland Security to address the issues involving illegal immigration and have no plans to withdraw from our participation in this Homeland Security initiative," Straub said.

In the program, local law enforcement shares fingerprints of all those arrested in a specific county with the Department of Justice. The fingerprints are then submitted to ICE and checked against U.S. Department of Homeland Security databases to determine a person's immigration status. ICE then determines what, if any, enforcement action to take.

Straub said Lexington police have taken no action that would account for the higher-than-average deportation of those convicted of a minor crime or no crime.

"The actions of our local law enforcement are unaffected by this system," she said. "Our police did a great job before we had it, and they do a great job now. Their goal is always to treat all members of our community equitably."

On May 5, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to freeze the program, according to news reports. Also, California Democratic U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren asked for a federal investigation in late April, saying ICE has made inconsistent statements about whether the program will eventually become mandatory for all locations.

Fayette County is the only county in Kentucky listed as participating in the program in the March 4 report by ICE.

Kate Miller, a program associate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said "the removals are contrary to ICE's goal of prioritizing dangerous criminals."

Secure Communities, Miller said, "operates with minimal transparency and accountability; it facilitates racial profiling and unconstitutional arrests; it creates a risk of unlawful and prolonged detention and unfairly impacts individuals."

Only 24.4 percent of those booked into the Fayette County Detention Center between October and Feb. 28 who were deported had been convicted of crimes involving violence or serious crimes such as arson, forgery and thefts.

More than 46 percent of people who were deported were classified by ICE as "non-criminal."

ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said that means the person was in the United States illegally but had not been convicted of any crime.

"If they are not eligible to remain in the country, it's ICE's job to remove them," even if they haven't been convicted of a crime, she said.

Immigrants from other countries who have become legal permanent residents but who have committed serious crimes can also be deported under the program, Zamarripa said.

Republican state Rep. Stan Lee of Lexington, who has repeatedly proposed legislation targeting illegal immigration, praised Secure Communities.

"They have a right to fingerprint you if you are arrested," Lee said. "If that is resulting in people who are here illegally being deported pursuant to this program, I don't understand why it's a bad thing."

In response to the ACLU's concerns, Zamarripa said Secure Communities reduces the risk of discrimination or racial profiling because it applies to all who are arrested and booked for a crime, including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

Zamarripa said ICE is formalizing procedures to monitor state and local conduct and protect the program from potential abuses.

These safeguards include establishing a formal complaint process for illegal immigrants who feel they have been the target of racial profiling; strengthening protections for victims of spousal abuse or other crimes; and analysis by a statistician to identify any data irregularities that could indicate misconduct in particular jurisdictions. Complaints would be investigated by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Department of Justice, she said.

ICE reports show that 127 people who were arrested in Fayette County were turned over to ICE from October through Feb. 28. Of those, 41 have been deported. The remainder of the cases had either not been resolved by Feb. 28 or did not result in people returning to their home country.