SAN DIEGO -- When someone is arrested for a felony or misdemeanor in San Diego County, he or she ends up in the central jail; an imposing gray structure with a maze of hallways, dirty intake windows, and isolation rooms.
“This is where the identification process begins, so every person who comes under our custody gets fingerprinted regardless of their charges,” said Sheriff's Capt. Daniel Peña, facing a sign listing typical misdemeanor and felony charges. Peña runs San Diego County's central jail downtown.
Whether they are U.S. citizens, here illegally or not, their fingers are scanned by a bulky blue and white machine, property of the county. The machine takes a snapshot of those fingerprints and enters that information into a database, which is in turn shared with state agencies and the FBI. The idea is to get those who've committed serious crimes out of the country. But critics say the net is being cast too broadly.
Since the Department of Homeland Security established Secure Communities in 2009, those fingerprints are also shared with federal immigration enforcement agencies. The program is meant to deport criminals who are here illegally.
"Once the records are taken from us—those fingerprints—we’ve kind of indirectly assisted them," said Peña.
In San Diego County alone, Secure Communities has led to the arrest of more than 18,000 undocumented immigrants since 2009. Slightly fewer than half have been deported. Nationwide, Secure Communities has been responsible for 77,000 deportations.
Most counties across the nation are signed on to the program. But questions remain as to whether these jurisdictions have the right to opt out of Secure Communities.
In San Diego County there are no plans to opt out. And Lt. Simon Hernandez of the Sheriff's Department went out of his way to say his agency is collaborating with the feds, but not trying to enforce immigration laws.
“One thing to keep in mind is that everybody who comes into our jail has committed a crime, or an infraction," said Hernandez. "So we’re not just collecting people that are being found crossing a border.”
The Department of Homeland Security is conducting a top-to-bottom review of the program to make sure it focuses on individuals who have committed serious crimes. But when asked whether states could opt out of the program, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, told KPCC Public Radio in Los Angeles, that no, they cannot.
“An individual state can’t come to the federal government and say, 'we don’t want the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to share information or seek to prevent that information sharing.' That is between federal departments," said Morton.
Some local law enforcement agencies say this collaboration with the federal government is difficult because drives a wedge between them and the people they police, especially immigrants.
Some states are defying Secure Communities. New York, Illinois and Massachusetts have recently announced they will no longer participate in this kind of information-sharing. In California, The cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles have approved similar measures.
“It’s a complicated issue in terms of whether it’s really a federal mandate in that the states and local governments must comply and must enroll, or whether it’s simply just an agreement,” said San Diego immigration lawyer Lilia Velasquez, who has represented dozens of undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence. Velasquez argues that Secure Communities has made it difficult for many immigrants, illegal or not, to come forward and report crimes for fear of getting deported.
“If I were the mayor of San Diego and I was seeing that indeed it was having a negative impact on the community that I am responsible for," said Velasquez, "I may be willing to just say, 'the community is more important to me than sharing the fingerprints with the Department of Homeland Security.' It’s a tough choice.”
It’s a choice that counties and some cities are increasingly willing to make as criticism for Secure Communities continues to heat up. Whether DHS will allow them to opt out -- and what will happen if they do -- is still up in the air.