Georgia has joined 23 other states as part of a federal fingerprint-sharing partnership that allows local jurisdictions to check the immigration status of inmates.
The partnership, known as Secure Communities, rolled out statewide Dec. 6, although Houston and Monroe counties previously signed on in March and July, respectively. Most recently, Kansas adopted Secure Communities statewide this past Wednesday.
In addition to a decades-long practice of sharing fingerprints through an FBI database to check whether someone has an existing record, Secure Communities fingerprints are also compared against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, records to see if someone is in the country illegally or removable for a criminal offense.
The program is expected to be implemented nationwide by 2013.
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Law enforcement officials say Secure Communities helps make booking easier and local areas safer. Meanwhile, the program has drawn criticism from those who say immigrants may be less willing to report crimes out of fear of getting deported.
In recent months, governors in Illinois, Massachusetts and New York have all rejected Secure Communities, although the Department of Homeland Security has said they cannot opt out of the program.
Nationwide, officials have deported 149,841 people since Secure Communities was implemented in October 2008, according to ICE data. More than 110,000 of them had criminal records, and more than 39,000 of that number were convicted of crimes such as murder, rape and sexual abuse of children.
The total number of those deported through Secure Communities checks also includes those who have been deported from the U.S. before as well as others who have overstayed their visas.
“ICE continues to work with its law enforcement partners across the country to responsibly and effectively implement this federal information sharing capability and plans to reach complete nationwide activation by the end of 2013,” ICE spokesman Vincent Picard said in a written statement.
According to ICE data, 28 people have been removed through Secure Communities from Houston County and one in Monroe County as of Nov. 30, the latest date for which information is available.
Being part of Secure Communities will not change how officers with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office will operate, Chief Deputy Russell Nelson said. However, it does streamline its work with fingerprinted inmates.
The sheriff’s office usually runs its fingerprints through state and national databases to see if an inmate has a previous record, and now they will be checked against ICE records, too, Nelson said.
In the past, when dealing with cases of inmates who could not show they were in the country legally, Bibb County had to take an extra step to check their status.
This process does not apply to those who commit minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct, that do not require fingerprints to be taken.
“The day-to-day contact with police is not going to have any impact,” he said.
So far, three people have been handed over to ICE custody since Bibb County started participating in Secure Communities on Dec. 6, Nelson said. That number is about the same as any other month, he said.
Nelson said statewide participation in Secure Communities will make it easier for law enforcement to find immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
Meanwhile, Secure Communities has caused fear among Hispanics in Houston and Monroe counties, and the statewide implementation of the partnership will only make that worse, Hispanic community leader Moises Velez said.
Many in the Hispanic community are not reporting crimes for fear of getting deported, and a number of them are trying to leave the area, he said.
Velez thinks Georgia’s leaders should ask themselves why several governors have scrutinized Secure Communities.
“I think the state is going backwards,” he said.
December data for Secure Communities is expected to become available by mid-January.
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.