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Congresswoman says federal officials lied about program targeting immigrant inmates

Reporting from San Francisco -- A California congresswoman Friday called for an investigation into the actions of federal immigration officials, saying they lied about whether counties and states had the right to opt out of a controversial nationwide enforcement program that screens for illegal immigrants in local jails.

"It is inescapable that the [Department of Homeland Security] was not honest with the local governments or with me" about whether local jurisdictions must participate, said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). "You can't have a government department essentially lying to local government and to members of Congress. This is not OK."

The so-called Secure Communities program, launched in 2008, was promoted to local and state leaders as a way to focus enforcement efforts on "serious convicted criminals." But the program, which uses fingerprint data, has come under fire because it has ensnared a high proportion of immigrants who have never been charged with a crime or who have been charged with minor infractions.

Critics say it discourages illegal immigrants from reporting crimes and opens the door to racial profiling.

A number of local jurisdictions — including Santa Clara and San Francisco counties — have asked that their fingerprint data not be sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security's investigative arm. Federal officials initially told them they could opt out, an assertion repeated by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Assistant Atty. Gen. Ronald Weich in September letters to Lofgren.

But internal correspondence recently released to immigrant and civil rights groups in response to Freedom of Information Act litigation reveals that ICE officials had long known that the program was not voluntary. A month after Lofgren received the letters, Napolitano held a news conference to clarify that local officials had no say in the program.

Lofgren said she will seek a probe of whether Napolitano or ICE Director John Morton were aware of the strategy.

A Department of Homeland Security official said in a statement that "Secure Communities is not voluntary and never has been. Unfortunately, this was not communicated as clearly as it should have been to state and local jurisdictions by ICE when the program began."

Lofgren also questioned the legal authority for implementing the program, which by 2013 will effectively involve all local jails in immigration enforcement. The rollout began in 2008, and 1,211 jurisdictions in 41 states now participate. States have always shared local fingerprint data with the FBI, which conducts criminal background checks. Under Secure Communities, the FBI now shares that data with ICE.

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