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Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley takes aim at deportations

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DeportationGov. Martin O’Malley announced today that the Baltimore City Detention Center will no longer automatically honor requests from the federal government to hold immigrants for deportation — making it one of only a handful of jurisdictions in the country to take a more discerning approach on the issue.

The move is intended to reduce the number of immigrants with no criminal records being deported under a program called Secure Communities. That initiative is supposed to identify repeat and violent offenders for deportation but a Baltimore Sun analysis this year found more than 40 percent of those removed had no prior criminal record — a far greater share than the national average.

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Baltimore will now join California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and others in reviewing requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement to hold immigrants for up to 48 hours beyond when they would ordinarily be released. Advocates say those detainer requests are often filed on immigrants with deep ties in the community and no criminal record.

Under the new policy, which begins immediately, the state-run jail will honor the requests only in cases where an immigrant has been charged or convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors or a “serious” misdemeanor — roughly the population Secure Communities was originally intended to target.

Those wanted only for immigration violations will be allowed to leave once they have satisfied the requirements of their pending charge.

“We will focus our efforts on complying with ICE detainers when there is an actual threat to the public’s safety,” the governor said in astatement. “No family should be ripped apart because the Republican Congress can’t come to the table and reach a reasonable compromise on comprehensive immigration reform.”

The decision is a significant step for O’Malley, who has already received praise from advocates for signing a law in 2011 to allow immigrants to pay in-state tuition and backing a measure last year to grant undocumented immigrants drivers licenses.

The Democratic governor is considering a run for president in 2016.

The head of the state’s largest immigrant rights group applauded the move.

“Martin O’Malley exemplifies the best principles of great leaders — honoring diversity, taking leadership when others fail, and executing decisive action when needed,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland.

Opponents said the move could potentially allow immigrants who also have criminal backgrounds to be set free rather than being turned over to ICE for further investigation. They also said the decision makes it harder for the federal government to enforcement immigration laws that are already on the books.

Those affected, critics point out, broke the law by entering the U.S. illegally in the first place.

“It has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with obstructing enforcement of immigration laws,” said Jessica M. Vaughan, with the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration laws.

“Marylanders should be outraged that Gov. O’Malley has put the interests of immigration scofflaws ahead of their legitimate interest in having immigration laws enforced, which protects jobs and public safety,” she said.

Secure Communities provides immigration officials access to fingerprints of everyone who is arrested, be it for a homicide or driving without a license. The suspect’s fingerprints are sent to Homeland Security, which checks a database of people known to be in the country illegally.

If the database finds a match, federal agents ask the local jail to hold the immigrant for 48 hours beyond the time he or she would otherwise be released so a pickup can be arranged.

But the data reveal that in states like Maryland a higher share of immigrants are being caught up by Secure Communities despite having committed only minor crimes or no crime at all. Immigration violations are often civil matters.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security was not immediately available for comment.

In Maryland, most counties honor the ICE requests. That happens even though those requests are not signed by a judge. The state attorney general has concluded they are optional and local taxpayers are not reimbursed for the expense.

That means that an immigrant picked up for driving without a license could spend two days in jail and then be transferred to ICE for deportation.

The General Assembly considered legislation during this session that would have delineated when a county could honor the request and when it would be required to let immigrants leave detention. The bill, which the O’Malley administration did not support, did not advance.

O’Malley’s move is limited to the Baltimore jail, which the state manages, but the decision opens the door to county officials elsewhere about how to handle the issue. An October letter from the Maryland Attorney General found that federal rules allow “state and local jurisdictions to exercise discretion when determining how to respond to individual detainers.”

Sirine Shebaya, an attorney who has followed the issue closely for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the decision could set an important precedent for the rest of the state.

“This is a huge step forward that we hope will lead other counties to follow suit as we continue to advocate for the enactment of a similar policy statewide,” she said.

Unlike warrants, immigration detainers are not signed by judges and meet no standard of probable cause — and a number of federal courts have started to look at them critically. A U.S. District Court judge in Oregon last week ruled that the detainers violate the 4th Amendment, prompting several jurisdictions there to announce they would no longer honor them.

O’Malley’s decision comes as hope has dwindled in Washington this year for Congress to pass legislation broadly re-writing the nation’s immigration laws. President Barack Obama has instructed Johnson to review immigration enforcement policies and suggest ways to make them “more humane.”

Secure Communities has come up at those meetings, advocates say, but it’s not clear whether changes to the specific program are being considered.

Democrats are scrambling ahead of the midterm election to ease concerns from some Hispanic groups that the Obama administration has not enough to stem the deportations of immigrations who could qualify for legal residency under a bipartisan immigration overhaul approved by the Senate last year. – Baltimore Sun

 

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