The Arizona law aimed at removing illegal immigrants has attracted attention and pitted the federal government against the state of Arizona.
But the Obama administration is quickly and quietly rolling out a program, started in Boston, that relies on the help of local police departments and is raising fears of racial profiling.
The program is called Secure Communities.
"(It) is our strategy to identify and remove criminal aliens," says Jim Martin, the deputy field director for Boston's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. "We focus on those that pose the most danger to communities, to the general public."
The program will help the Obama administration reach its goal of deporting 400,000 immigrants this year. It depends on cities and towns funneling information on the people they arrest to immigration authorities, who check to see if they're violating immigration laws and might be deportable.
Between October of 2008 and June of this year, 102 people were deported as a result of Boston's participation. Almost half of them were charged with lower-level crimes.
San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. have fought to block this program. A Boston police spokesperson wouldn't confirm whether the department is participating.
But according to federal documents and ICE, the Boston Police Department is participating. These officials say Boston is one of the cities where the program started.
"Boston was actually part of a pilot back in 2006 that first tested interoperability," Martin says.
According to Martin, Boston shares the fingerprints of everyone it arrests with immigration officials. He says it's all part of a plan to work more "efficiently."
Here's how it works:
When Boston police officers arrest someone, they enter their fingerprints into a database of FBI, Homeland Security and immigration information. If the person has had any interaction with immigration officials — if they overstayed a visa, if they applied for asylum, if they have a green card — it will ping officials. If ICE wants that person, they'll call Boston police to put a hold on them.
ICE categorizes these immigrants — some of whom are here legally — by the severity of the charges against them. The program is supposed to target the worst offenders — "Level 1s" — people charged with murder, kidnapping, national security crimes. But Martin says ICE officials also deport people accused of lesser crimes that are picked up by Boston police officers.
"It's based on what our resources allow," he says. "Certainly somebody that is arrested for a Level 2 offense that also has those charges which make them removable, if we have the resources to devote to that, then we certainly will do that and enforce the immigration laws."
Between October of 2008 and June of this year, 102 people were deported as a result of Boston's participation. Almost half of them were charged with lower-level crimes (Levels 2 and 3). Those can include minor drug charges, burglary, driving without a license or, in Martin's words, just being "removable."
Advocates say the net is too big. And they are shocked that Boston is participating in this program.
"The truth is, it hurts," says John Willshire Carrera, an immigration attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services. "I'd also like to know when they were going to tell us about it."
Willshire Carrera says the Boston Police Department is "now part of a system that is sweeping through communities and sweeping through areas basically checking everybody all of the time. This is a real problem for me."
He and other advocates worry this will hurt what they say has been a trusting relationship between immigrant communities and Boston police.
Eva Millona heads the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
"(Immigrants) will go further underground, and will not go to the police to report crimes out of fear that now local police are deputized and are serving the federal government," Millona said.
National immigrant advocates worry that this program could promote racial profiling. If police know everyone they arrest will be checked through an immigration database, they might target people who they think look "illegal."
"They will go further underground, and will not go to the police to report crimes out of fear that now local police are deputized and are serving the federal government."Eva Millona, MIRA
But immigration officials defend the program, saying it avoids profiling because everyone is entered into the database. And it relies on fingerprints.
Jessica Vaughan also supports Secure Communities. She's an expert on law enforcement for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that wants tighter restrictions on immigration. She's disappointed that ICE has only deported about 3 percent of the people accused of lower-level crimes in Boston.
"I think you have wonder if that is enough," she says. "When, it's very possible that some of these lower-level offenders could go on and do go on to commit serious crimes. Even though they've been brought to the attention of ICE, ICE knows where they are but doesn't remove them. It certainly doesn't provide much of a deterrent.
"If anything it might encourage people to stay because they know that unless you are an axe murder or a serial rapist you're not going to be subject to removal," Vaughan added.
Vaughan says immigration officials should find faster ways to deport people while still giving them due process. And they should get the resources they need for detaining people.
According to ICE, Boston is the only place in Massachusetts that's participating in Secure Communities. But ICE official Jim Martin says his agency is trying to sign up other cities and towns. First, they're focusing on places they consider "high-risk."
ICE is "looking at things such as crime statistics, some of our own enforcement and removal data. We also have to consider the availability of resources at all levels," Martin said.
ICE had hoped to have this program in almost half of Massachusetts counties by now. Martin wouldn't reveal a deployment schedule, but says he hopes to get other police departments on board as quickly as possible.
This program aired on August 5, 2010.