By Alicia A. Caldwell
WASHINGTON — A group that reviewed the Department of Homeland Security's controversial effort to identify illegal immigrants is recommending that federal officials use the program to identify serious criminals and not people accused only of minor traffic offenses.
The group's report also recommends that DHS officials clarify "the goal and objectives of the Secure Communities ... and accurately relay this information" to local jurisdictions where fingerprints collected at jails and sent to the FBI are then used to identify and detain illegal immigrants.
Critics of Secure Communities, including immigrant advocates and law enforcers, have said the program casts too wide a net in the search for illegal immigrants.
There also have been complaints that Secure Communities was pitched initially to local jurisdictions as optional, although in recent months Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton has said there is no way for local authorities to opt out of the program that allows fingerprints sent to the FBI to be compared to an immigration database.
In August, Morton announced the agency was canceling previously signed agreements with states, saying state permission was not necessary.
In the report, the task force said eliminating traffic violators and misdemeanor offenders from the program, or starting deportation proceedings only for those convicted of a misdemeanor, "would discourage minor arrests undertaken only to channel noncitizens into the (immigration) system."
The task force also said that crime and domestic victims and witnesses "must not be subject to enforcement actions."
According to the report, the group was divided whether to recommend that the program be suspended until the problems are resolved.
Last month, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the department would launch a case-by-case review of the nearly 300,000 deportation cases already in the immigration court system and put an indefinite hold on most cases involving people with no criminal history. The effort would focus the department's resources on criminal immigrants and those who posed a public safety or national security threat, she said.
The policy change was announced about two months after Morton issued a memo detailing when and how ICE officials could use discretion in deportation cases, including in the cases of those with no criminal record and young people brought to the country illegally as children.
DHS spokesman Matt Chandler said the report, which he described as a draft, was being reviewed by the Homeland Security Advisory Council, an independent body that oversaw the task force.
Morton formed the task force in June, amid mounting criticism that Secure Communities was not meeting its stated goals of rooting out serious criminals.
Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council whose name was on the report, said Thursday the group was told to focus primarily on how the program should address traffic offenders. And almost from the start, he said, they "began to really understand how troubled this program has been over time and how many problems it faces today."
"The report is important in the clear statement that this program is seriously flawed as it exists today, and it's going to take some bold action if the administration wants it to get better," Johnson said.
Some people in the group of 20 current and former law enforcement officials, immigrant advocates, lawyers, labor officials and others, disagreed.
Six task force members left their names off the report.
Arturo Venegas Jr., a retired Sacramento, California, police chief who now consults on law enforcement issues, resigned from the group Wednesday.
"I didn't think the report went far enough," Venegas said Thursday. "Even if DHS/ICE put the recommendations in place, the problems would continue. I even question the legitimacy of the program."
Chandler said Morton has asked those who left their names off the report to meet with him as he reviews the panel's recommendations.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press