Deportation operation casts a wide net

Program supposed to focus on catching dangerous criminals

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BALTIMORE — Maria Carmen's 6-year-old daughter last spent a morning at home with her father on a Wednesday in October.

On the way to his construction job, he was pulled over for speeding — a routine traffic stop that revealed he was in the country illegally. As a result, and despite his having no prior criminal record, the husband and father was within weeks led by federal agents onto a chartered plane in handcuffs and deported to his native Ecuador.

By the time he is eligible to return, his daughter, a U.S. citizen, likely will be in high school.

Some 20 percent of the immigrants deported nationwide under a sweeping federal program called Secure Communities have no prior criminal record.

The deportations, which often begin with traffic stops, are taking place even though Secure Communities was originally touted as a program to target dangerous criminals. While President Barack Obama has acknowledged that noncriminals are sometimes caught, he has said that his administration is "focusing our limited resources … on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes — not families, not just folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."

Maryland lawmakers have embraced pro-immigrant policies, including for those living here illegally. Maryland is one of the first East Coast states to distribute driver's licenses to immigrants, for instance, and to allow undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition.

But to Carmen and her daughter, Maryland no longer feels so welcoming.

"I don't even know how to tell her about the situation — about how she's not going to have a dad," said Carmen, her eyes fixed on the floor of her sparsely furnished kitchen in Baltimore. "I just hope to God he can come back."

Nationwide, half of the Secure Communities deportees were repeat or felony offenders, and 30 percent had been convicted of lesser crimes.

Advocates for immigrants who are in the United States illegally say federal officials are deporting thousands of people across the country who work, are raising families and have not gotten into trouble. These are the kinds of individuals likely to be eligible to apply for legal residency if Washington ever comes to an agreement on changing immigration laws, advocates say. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans support giving most of those in the country illegally a path to citizenship.

"It's totally unacceptable," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group. "I can't understand why families that are going to benefit from the potential immigration reform — like people who don't have any criminal record — are being deported."

Some supporters of Secure Communities reject the suggestion that U.S. authorities should target only criminals for immigration enforcement. Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said such policies send the wrong signal to people who are thinking about entering the country illegally.

"The message is, 'If you get here you will be home free as long as you don't commit really serious crimes and get caught,'" said Vaughan, whose Washington-based think tank supports tighter immigration laws. "That's encouraging people to risk their lives."

Secure Communities, which was started in 2008 under President George W. Bush, provides federal immigration officials real-time access to fingerprints of everyone who is arrested, be it for a homicide or driving without a license. Its reach was initially limited, but the program was expanded under the Obama administration and now is in place nationwide.

The program is largely automated. When someone is arrested, his or her fingerprints are sent automatically to the Department of Homeland Security, which checks a database of immigrants known to be in the country illegally. That database includes people who have overstayed a visa, been previously deported or have a standing deportation order.

If the arrestee's name appears in the agency's database, federal agents may arrange to pick up the immigrant from the jail.