This was the final story I wrote for my news writing class. I spent over 20 hours interviewing and gathering data. I was not able to use all the information. Stories seem to flow as you start writing them, sometimes going in a completely different direction. My personal view on immigration - I am still sitting on the fence. However there needs to be more serious discussion in Washington using ears and brains to come up with a smarter solution. Doing nothing, which seems to be the position of the last two presidencies, has not produced any policy or enforcement that addresses a serious threat to the freedoms we recognize in our country today.
Utah County has placed itself in the middle of a debate about how to make itself safe while protecting civil liberties of immigrants since adopting a new fingerprinting program aimed at deporting criminal illegal aliens.
The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) initiated a new fingerprinting identification program called Secure Communities in 2008. Since March 2010, Utah, and in particular Utah County, has activated this technology.
In a June 2010 news release, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Utah determined the Secure Communities program (S-Comm) would be an effective way to identify and remove criminal aliens from our state.
It would also provide an additional arsenal to protect our streets from criminal activity by identifying criminal aliens.
“Anyone arrested for a crime and booked in our jail, we take their fingerprints,” said Jim Tracy, Utah County sheriff. “The fingerprint file for that person is run against that national AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Index System), and if they are wanted anywhere in the United States or if they have a criminal history, we can get that kind of information through querying that. This [Secure Communities] is like the same thing. We can check on the criminal status and [then] get their immigration status through the ICE program.”
This program has received little attention in lieu of other immigration issues, yet it is reported that S-Comm will convict and deport more aliens that are criminal.
The S-Comm program has three pillars or functions: identify criminal aliens through biometric fingerprinting, prioritize by a series of risk factors for detention and deportation and transform enforcement processes that achieve lasting enforcement of criminal alien activity.
Many individuals with Level 1 offenses have been apprehended in connection with this program and taken out of the population. According to Tracy, ICE’s ability to turn over illegal criminals for deportation hearings has been timely in Utah County.
There is a consensus among those who work in law enforcement and some advocates for illegal immigrants that S-Comm has had positive outcomes.
Tony Yapias, an advocacy group director of Proyecto Latino de Utah and local talk show host, is in favor of S-Comm because it does make our communities safer. He said he reminds illegals that they have already put themselves at risk by being here as undocumented immigrants, and when they commit a crime, they are wrong and warrant being arrested.
“We all have the right to live in a safe community, a safe neighborhood, city, or town or state,” Yapias said. “Power to law enforcement if we can get rid of criminals — not just undocumented criminals, but also border criminals, any criminals. That is important.”
However, there is concern in many Latino communities that law enforcement agents have overstepped the line in taking undocumented immigrants to jail when they have not committed a crime, Yapias said.
Ignacio Garcia, professor of Western and Latino History at BYU, said the critical issue is whether the government wants to criminalize these people and guarantee that they cannot come back to the United States because they were brought into the jail system on an infraction or a charge they were never convicted of.
The majority of fingerprints in the S-Comm system are from non-immigrant and student visas. The individuals who were issued these visas usually have overstayed the time granted them to be in the United States. Many U.S. agricultural industries do not qualify for the guest worker program, but there is a need for laborers that American citizens are not satisfying, so Latinos come and fill those needs.
“I have seen some farmers offer $20 an hour, but they have no one who will take the jobs,” said Christopher Keen, a local immigration attorney. “The agricultural people are not happy, no one in agriculture is happy.”
Backers say S-Comm is effective in identifying criminals within undocumented communities. However, opponents say immigrants who obey the law and work to provide for their families live in fear of being deported because they are brown-skinned and have an accent.
“There needs to be reform, a massive reform,” Keen said. “Everybody on either side of the issue [immigration] are for massive reform. The system we have separates families. It encourages folks to disobey the immigrations laws. [There are] a lot of victims.
“For my clients that have mixed families, it’s never a black and white issue,” Keen said. “The illegal is the breadwinner for his wife and four, five or six U.S. citizen children. If he goes to Mexico, that family is going on public assistance.”
Keen said he did not see any legal issues with the fingerprinting program, but he does have a concern for potential abuse and discrimination.
“The cost of human suffering is really high with the immigration system we have now, it’s really sad, very sad,” Keen said. “For many immigrants this (S-Comm) is going to be a problem, more will be caught, more will be deported and more families will be separated.”