Wanted: Undocumented Workers

A new program brings the immigration battle to county jails.

Immigrations and Custom Enforcement is now able to check fingerprints processed at jails in Spokane and other Washington counties. The program is called “Secure Communities” and allows immigration officials to identify fingerprints of undocumented immigrants who are processed in county jails and hold them for possible deportation proceedings. The program began last month at the Spokane County Jail.

Immigration advocates contend the protocol could cause immigrants— undocumented or otherwise — to flee, crippling Washington’s industries and potentially depriving law enforcement of information that they could use to solve crimes.

“It … tends to create the climate, especially in immigrant communities, of fear of law enforcement, which is very dangerous,” says Greg Cunningham, program director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities Spokane. “You cannot surgically take undocumented immigrants out of the country and not expect there to be some impact on the rest of the community.”

Secure Communities was started in 2008 but struggled to get momentum in Washington. Gov. Christine Gregoire turned down statewide enrollment in the program in 2010, saying she preferred to have it done on a county-by-county basis, spokeswoman Karina Shagren says.

Until last year, only a handful of counties in Washington had signed up for the program, according to information released by immigration officials.

But then the immigration agency figured out a way to get the information directly from the FBI — which automatically receives prints from everyone taken into county nationwide.

“Once a state or local law enforcement agency voluntarily submits fingerprint data to the federal government, no agreement with the state is legally necessary for one part of the federal government to share it with another part,” says Andrew S. Muñoz, public affairs officer for the immigration agency’s Seattle office.

Now, 88 percent of jails nationwide are tracked by Secure Communities, including all of Washington and Idaho, according to officials.

Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich supports the measure.

“It’s something that we do because it identifies those individuals that are in the country illegally,” Knezovich says. He rejected assertions that fear of deportation could undermine relations between deputies and local immigrants. “I haven’t had any negative comments from the Hispanic community and I have a great relationship with many of the community leaders.”

Muñoz says Secure Communities has helped deport 135,000 undocumented workers with criminal records, including 49,000 convicted of crimes like murder and rape.

Before, the immigration agency’s involvement in jails was more erratic, says Wendy Hernandez, an immigration attorney based in Walla Walla.

“It used to be [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] would make a sweep through the jail once or twice a week,” Hernandez says. “If you were there at the wrong time, they might come across you. Now it’s just an auto matic for anyone who is booked into jail.”

But a ratcheting-up in deportations could have an effect on the state’s farms, says Martin Meraz-Garcia, an assistant professor of Chicano studies at Eastern Washington University.

“Essentially, in the state of Washington, you have 60 to 70 percent of undocumented labor picking our crops, fruits, vegetables, et cetera,” Meraz-Garcia says.

“If all of a sudden the state of Washington becomes a state like Alabama, that farm industry is going to experience billions of dollars in lost revenue, because people are going to go elsewhere,” he says, referring to immigration laws in Alabama that are considered the strictest in the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington last month urged King County not to honor federal immigration holds put on people detained in the county jail, according to spokesman Doug Honig.

“What the issue is for the local authorities is that they don’t have to hold someone whom they otherwise would release just because ICE wants them detained so that they could pick them up as part of Secure Communities,” Honig says.

In Spokane, Cunningham says he will soon be joining other immigration advocates to protest the program and recent news that border patrol agents have been responding to Spokane police calls. 

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About The Author

Chris Stein

Chris Stein is a staff writer at The Inlander. He covers social services, downtown Spokane, Eastern Washington and Spokane city hall. His work has been published by the Associated Press, VeloNews and the Santa Barbara Independent. He was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.