In an unusual move, the Obama administration has told governors they cannot exempt their states from the controversial Secure Communities program, which uses fingerprints collected by local and state police to help immigration authorities identify and deport tens of thousands of criminals each year.
The Department of Homeland Security notified 39 governors Friday that the fingerprint-sharing program did not need their approval to operate in their states, and said it had voided agreements they had signed to authorize their states' participation, according to a copy of the letter.
"This change will have no effect on the operation of Secure Communities in your state," read the letter, which was signed by John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Governors in the other 11 states had not signed agreements.
The action was immediately denounced by some political leaders, immigration advocacy groups, and other opponents of the program.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) called the decision to cancel the agreements "astonishing." At Lofgren's request, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general is investigating how the Secure Communities program was pitched to local officials.
The decision is "an insult" to the governors and "the latest in a long line of deceptive DHS theatrics," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union legislative office in Washington.
Begun in 2008, Secure Communities was chiefly intended to identify and deport convicted felons found to be in the country illegally.
Each time local or state police arrest and book a suspect into a jail, his or her fingerprints are sent to the FBI, and then are stored in criminal databases. The FBI then notifies the state or local authorities of the suspect's criminal history.
Under Secure Communities, the FBI also shares the fingerprints with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Suspects who are found to be in the country illegally may be deported.
The fingerprint-sharing is used in more than 1,400 jurisdictions, or about 70% of the country, including the entire Southwest border. Homeland Security officials plan to expand it nationwide by 2013.
So far, more than 77,000 immigrants convicted of crimes, including more than 28,000 convicted of offenses like murder, rape, and sexual abuse of children, have been deported under the program.
Governors in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and several other states have complained that the effort also has ensnared thousands of minor offenders, including some who were arrested but not yet tried or convicted, and has deterred some crime victims from coming forward to aid police.
Several governors had announced their intention to withdraw from the program. Others had simply refused to sign agreements.
In June, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declined to participate, saying the program is "overly broad" and "may deter the reporting of criminal activity."
Patrick's office declined comment Friday, saying aides were still trying to understand the decision.
Colorado officials had negotiated their agreement for months last year to ensure it included protection for victims of domestic violence who may be arrested by mistake and then identified as illegal immigrants.
Those protections are now void, said a Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report from Los Angeles.