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States Eye Limits On Deportations

Washington — As Congress considers major revisions to federal immigration laws, legislators in a few states are trying to block the federal government’s power to deport immigrants who land in their jails.

The efforts to pass so-called Trust Acts are essentially the polar opposite of laws passed in Arizona and elsewhere to encourage illegal immigrants to leave their states. Sponsors want to put the brakes on a wide-reaching federal program, called Secure Communities, that asks state and local police to detain illegal immigrants after an arrest until federal immigration officials can pick them up. Critics of Secure Communities argue that the program leads to the deportation of some people who pose little threat to the public.

The public push to pass Trust Acts started in several state capitols this month. At a rally on Beacon Hill, Mass., immigration advocates noted they already signed up 34 co-sponsors in the legislature who back the effort. In Sacramento, Calif., activists showed up with their dogs to protest a woman detained by federal authorities after neighbors complained to police that her dog barked too loudly. And Connecticut legislators held their first hearing on the Trust Act there.

Proponents hope their bills can scale back deportations in their own states, while influencing the national debate over immigration, too. The Obama administration backs Secure Communities, as it set record highs for the number of immigrants deported per year.

“One of the biggest barriers to moving forward with immigration reform is the contradiction of continuing to deport the people today who would otherwise become citizens tomorrow,” said B. Loewe, a spokesman for the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, which is pushing the laws.

“If we can pass enough of these, it would force the federal government’s hand to say ‘we can’t depend on the states to do our job,’ “ said State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a Democrat who is sponsoring legislation in the Connecticut House.

Opponents of these bills say the legislation interferes with police departments’ ability to keep their residents safe. “The Trust Act and all of its clones are creatures of political leaders, not law enforcement agencies,” said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports tighter controls on immigration.

The federal government launched Secure Communities in 2008, and it is now used in every state. The program allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to review the records of suspects in the custody of local and state police for immigration violations at the same time that the FBI examines their criminal histories.

If ICE officers find a prisoner who they think is in the United States illegally, the federal agents can ask local police to keep the prisoner in custody for up to two days. The federal government has used the program to deport more than a quarter of a million people since 2008, or about 7,000 people a month last year.

The state legislation to curb Secure Communities would primarily prevent local police from turning over less-dangerous immigrants to federal authorities. The latest push comes after the federal government told states last year that they could not opt out of the program. The governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and New York had tried to keep their states from participating.

One of the biggest disagreements over Secure Communities centers on how well it targets criminals convicted of or charged with serious crimes. The Obama administration says the program is one of the most effective ways to go after illegal immigrants who are dangerous.

“Even though some aliens may be arrested on minor criminal charges, they may also have more serious criminal backgrounds,” said Dani Bennett, ICE spokeswoman. Many prisoners who were released by police, despite ICE requests to keep them in custody, then went on to commit more serious crimes, she said. “Law enforcement agencies that honor ICE detainers ultimately help protect public safety.”

The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reviewed hundreds of Secure Communities cases and found that ICE followed its policies in 97 percent of them.

The Obama administration recently tweaked the program to reduce the number of people ICE pursues after arrests for traffic offenses and other petty crimes.

But advocates for immigrants argue that Secure Communities still is often used to deport people who have only minor infractions on their records. Roughly 28 percent of people deported under the program since it began in 2008 were convicted of “aggravated felonies” or had two felonies on their records. But 77 percent had some sort of criminal history.

The conflict over Secure Communities has been most visible in California, formerly home to more than a third of all the immigrants who have been deported through Secure Communities. Last year, state lawmakers sent a Trust Act to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to sign.

The proposal would have allowed local police to comply with ICE requests to keep prisoners in custody only if the prisoners had been charged with “serious or violent felonies.” But the governor vetoed the measure because the definition of serious crimes didn’t include abusing children, trafficking drugs, selling guns and other significant offenses.

“The significant flaws in this bill can be fixed, and I will work with the legislature to see that the bill is corrected forthwith,” the governor wrote in his September veto measure.