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Homeland Security head counters Patrick

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / October 6, 2011

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Acknowledging a botched beginning to the federal Secure Communities program, the nation’s top homeland security official contradicted claims yesterday made by detractors and called the effort “the single best tool at focusing our immigration enforcement resources on criminals and egregious immigration law violators.’’

“Termination of this program would do nothing to decrease the amount of enforcement,’’ Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in remarks delivered at American University. “It would only weaken public safety and move the immigration enforcement system back toward the ad hoc approach where noncriminal [immigrants] are more likely to be removed than criminals.’’

Secure Communities, which has become the focal point of a heated debate over illegal immigration in Massachusetts, is a data-sharing program between the FBI and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security. Under the program, the FBI crosschecks its fingerprint database - which includes prints collected from police departments across the country - with immigration databases to identify illegal immigrants arrested by State and local police.

At the heart of criticism lobbed by Governor Deval Patrick and advocates for the immigrant community are accusations that the program fails to distinguish between serious, violent offenders and those in the country illegally but who present no public safety threat. Napolitano described the assertions as unfounded and contrary to reality.

“It makes sense to prioritize our finite resources on removing a Mexican citizen who is wanted for murder in his home country ahead of a Mexican national who is the sole provider for his American citizen spouse,’’ she said. “It makes sense to remove a Costa Rican man convicted of sexual assault against a minor before we spend the time and money to send a mother back to her violent and abusive husband in Jamaica, separating her from her American-born children; finally, it makes sense to prioritize resources on the removal of a Chinese man convicted of aggravated assault and weapons offenses before removing a 10th-grade student who was brought to this country when he was a child.’’

Napolitano’s comments put her at odds with Patrick, who has argued the opposite: that Secure Communities’ focus on deporting arrested illegal immigrants would inadvertently net less serious offenders or those without criminal backgrounds.

In the face of criticism, Patrick has taken a hands-off approach to Secure Communities, pointing out that federal officials intend to expand it to every jurisdiction in the country by 2013, and that states have no say in the matter. He has also pointed out that Massachusetts already sends all fingerprints it collects to the FBI, which will share them with ICE as soon as Secure Communities is activated in Massachusetts.

“The only issue that Secure Communities is about is whether one federal agency can share information with another federal agency,’’ the governor said during a radio appearance last week. “They don’t need a governor to tell them that.’’

Patrick called the push for Secure Communities “a terrific political issue’’ that “stirs people up.’’ But he said his critics - including three Republican sheriffs who blasted him at a State House press conference last week - are misguided.

“We already send all of our fingerprints to Washington,’’ he said. “We sent all our convictions to Washington. The fingerprints go to the fingerprint people. ICE takes it from there. The federal government doesn’t need governors or sheriffs for that matter to, say, share information.’’ The sheriffs “are doing nothing more than we are doing already, but with the big exception of grabbing headlines.’’

Patrick’s critics, primarily Republicans, have ripped the governor, contending that his skepticism of the program has made Massachusetts a magnet for illegal immigrants. They point to recent violent deaths in Massachusetts, allegedly at the hands of undocumented residents, as proof of the need for Secure Communities to come online in the Bay State.

State Senator Robert Hedlund, Republican of Weymouth, this week called the issue of illegal immigrants driving without licenses a “pretty prevalent problem on our streets.’’