The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors have unanimously voted to opt out of a federal fingerprint reporting program aimed at criminals suspected of being in the country illegally.
The Secure Communities program was implemented in Santa Clara County in May by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
County officials said the program was implemented without the approval of the board, although the Department of Homeland Security has said that Secure Communities is a voluntary program and has provided a potential opt-out process.
Federal immigration officials claim the program is an important information-sharing tool for identifying and expediting the removal of illegal immigrants who are taken into local law enforcement custody.
Opponents of the program, many of them immigrants and immigration rights activists, say the program has been forced on the county by the federal government and the state, and that it hampers public safety.
They claim that implementation of the program results in a disregard for basic civil rights, opens the door to racial profiling, and will have a negative fiscal impact on the county.
"We need the police and we need security, and they need us as well," one Spanish-speaking resident said through a translator at the board meeting. "We are against this law and any law that attacks our community."
After hearing testimonies from about 20 people on the issue, the board voted to authorize efforts to opt out of the program, agreeing that implementation of the program conflicts with the county's policy not to participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law and also potentially jeopardizes the safety of residents by discouraging them from calling police for fear of having their immigration status be questioned.
"It doesn't make our communities any safer," Supervisor George Shirakawa said. "I think it creates fear among residents and prevents them from reporting crimes."
Shirakawa said he is concerned that the gesture to opt out will be merely symbolic, but added, "It does send a message to our residents that we are not going to create an atmosphere of fear in our communities."
The program works by having local agencies take fingerprints of people who are arrested and checking the fingerprints against the Department of Homeland Security's identification system and FBI criminal databases. If there is a match, federal agents work with the county in detaining, questioning, and eventually taking custody of the individuals.
Since its activation in the county, the program has resulted in the arrest of 339 illegal immigrants, nearly 75 percent of whom were convicted criminals, according to ICE regional spokeswoman Virginia Kice. She said 98 of those people had prior convictions for serious or violent offenses.
"As these figures demonstrate, Secure Communities is a major step forward in ICE's efforts to work with local law enforcement to promote public safety in Santa Clara County, and we would welcome an opportunity to discuss the results further with the Board of Supervisors and other county officials," Kice said in response to the board's vote.
Opponents argue that although the program targets serious offenders, it sweeps up even people with no criminal convictions or convictions for minor offenses like driving without a license.
County Executive Jeff Smith and County Counsel Miguel Marquez now plan to send a formal notification to ICE and Attorney General Jerry Brown requesting that they stop using fingerprints collected in Santa Clara County to determine immigration status or investigate immigration violations.
Following the board meeting this morning, a coalition of community organizations held a news conference commending the vote. Among them were People Acting in Community Together; Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network; and Silicon Valley De-Bug.
The conference was attended by about 50 people, some holding signs saying "Scared Communities NOT in our County!" and "Say 'NO' to Fear, Say 'NO' to S-Comm."
"History has shown us that our past isolates groups of people based on race," said Gail Noble, a community organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug. "Our charge for this generation is to make sure it will not happen again, and we vow to keep going until our county is not part of this divisive program."
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