Responding to a growing chorus of criticism, federal immigration officials are revamping a program designed to deport dangerous criminals.
To address concerns that too many low-level offenders are being netted, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton announced Friday that the Secure Communities program will be changed to focus more on those convicted of serious crimes.
A new advisory panel that includes local law enforcement officials and immigration advocates will come up with recommendations on how, for instance, to stop the deportation of people arrested, but not convicted, of minor traffic offenses who have no criminal history or serious immigration violations.
To deal with concerns that ethnic profiling is going on and that community policing is being hampered, there will be more training.
And to avoid cases where victims of domestic violence are deported, a new policy directs immigration officers to use discretion so that they and other crime victims aren't swept up.
"We need to do a better job of ensuring that the program is more focused on targeting those that pose the biggest risk to communities," Morton said in a statement. "Today we are undertaking several reforms--developed in collaboration with our law enforcement partners and other stakeholders--that help us achieve that goal and will improve and strengthen the program."
Officials and advocates in California have been at the forefront of pushing for change. A bill that would require that counties "opt in" to the program was passed May 26 by the Assembly and is in the Senate committee process.
The Bee editorial board also called for the program to be overhauled.
UPDATE: Some advocates blasted the changes as merely cosmetic and called for a moratorium on the program until more comprehensive reform.
"Today's announcement by ICE is simply window dressing," Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who is the bill's author, said in a statement.
"How many more innocent people have to be swept up by the ironically named Secure Communities program before the Obama administration will change course? Talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform is not an excuse for continuing with a flawed, unjust program that is having tragic consequences for communities across the country," he added.
Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of everyone arrested by participating local law enforcement agencies are run through federal immigration databases.
In California, nearly 1.8 million sets of fingerprints were checked from when the program started here in May 2009 through the end of March. Of those, 172,000 were matched to illegal immigrants and nearly 39,000 were deported.
Nearly 12,000 of those deported had been convicted of violent crimes or major drug offenses. But about 16,000 were deported for lesser crimes, and nearly 11,000 were "noncriminals" - those without any convictions, though they may have had gang affiliations or have been deported previously.