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According to an audit of the first few weeks of the federal government’s controversial Secure Communities program, the city of San Francisco is bucking a national trend by releasing to immigration authorities mostly those prisoners suspected of felonies, rather than those suspected of lesser crimes.

San Francisco adopted the program on June 8 of this year, along with most of the nation. Under the program, anyone booked into jail, regardless of the crime, has their fingerprints entered into the state criminal database and shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE then decides whether to place an immigration hold on the individual and initiate deportation proceedings. Previously, the Sheriff’s Department would report the names of only those who committed felonies and whose residency could not be immediately verified.

The audit, conducted by SFPD, found that of the 1,492 fingerprints taken by the Sheriff’s Department at the county jail from June 9 through June 30, ICE matched 122. Of those 122, ICE expressed interest in 93, and put what’s known as an ICE hold on them. Of the 93, only 59 were released to immigration officials.

According to San Francisco Police Department data, of the 122 matches by ICE:

–   73, or 59 percent, were for serious crimes such as homicide and assault.
–   38, or 32 percent, were for less serious crimes, like drunk driving.
–   11, or 9 percent, were for even lesser crimes or misdemeanors such as carrying an open container of alcohol.

This is strikingly different from the nationwide numbers released by ICE last year. From October 2008 to October 2009, according to ICE audits, 9 percent, or 11,219 matches, were for serious crimes, while 86 percent, or 101,953 matches, were for less serious crimes.

Police Commissioner Angela Chan said that San Francisco is the only city, as far as she knows, that is conducting audits and keeping immigration officials accountable to their word that they are only interested in serious criminals. Elected officials had expressed concern that the program would target petty criminals and thus undermine public safety.

San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey has said that, based on the city’s sanctuary policy, most of these alleged serious criminals would have been reported to ICE anyway. In 2009, the Sheriff’s Department reported about 2,000 people to ICE.

The numbers from the Sheriff’s Department and SFPD are not that clear-cut, however; Police Chief George Gascon said, for example, that they might include arrests from past months.

Chan pointed out that the number of individuals released to ICE might be skewed, because they must go through the legal process before they can be released to ICE.

The Police Commission and Sheriff’s Department are discussing performing bimonthly audits. Staff had complained that it took too much time because the records are not digitized and data must be collected by hand.

“It’s important we monitor what happens,” Chan said.

Earlier on Wednesday, the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Educational Network, a coalition of activists that helps immigrants, held a press conference blasting ICE for its lack of accountability. Francisco Ugarte, an attorney who fights deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants, said he is concerned that ICE has insufficient oversight. When they ask ICE if they can opt out of Secure Communities, Ugarte says, they are referred to the state, and when they ask the state, they are referred back to ICE.

“We are in some sort of limbo,” he said.

Some jurisdictions have been seeking to opt out of the program. Last month, California Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown denied Hennessey’s request that San Francisco be allowed to opt out.

ICE officials could not be immediately reached for comment or to share their data.

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Rigoberto Hernandez

Rigoberto Hernandez is a journalism student at San Francisco State University. He has interned at The Oregonian and The Orange County Register, but prefers to report on the Mission District. In his spare time he can be found riding his bike around the city, going to Giants games and admiring the Stable building.

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