Federal immigration program raises concerns in community

In November, former UC Berkeley graduate student Pancho Ramos Stierle was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) following his arrest at a raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment.

Stierle came to the United States with a student visa to pursue his Ph.D in astrophysics at UC Berkeley but became undocumented when he dropped out in 2008.

Despite having no criminal record, Stierle was detained following an ICE hold after his fingerprints revealed he was an undocumented immigrant.

According to Jon Rodney, communications project coordinator for the California Immigrant Policy Center, Stierle’s case highlights the absurdity of Secure Communities, a federal program that shares fingerprints through a database to identify illegal immigrants that have committed serious crimes. Stierle was arrested for protesting peacefully but was still detained at local expense even after his charges were dropped due to an immigration hold through the program, Rodney said.

“It doesn’t make anyone safer,” he said.

Secure Communities, which was launched in 2008, is raising concerns among residents of Berkeley and elsewhere who say immigrants without any criminal history have also been subject to detainment and deportation.

When people are arrested for a criminal offence, their fingerprints are sent to the FBI who run them through their federal database to check criminal history. The FBI submits this information to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which determines if the individual may be subject to deportation.

“The stated purpose of the program is to identify and detain dangerous, undocumented felons,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “The reality is that a large number of people not convicted of any crime have been deported as well.”

According to the ICE’s website, more than 110,000 immigrants convicted of crimes were removed from the country through the Secure Communities program between its 2008 inception and Oct. 31, 2011. This figure includes 39,500 immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies such as murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children.

According to ICE’s own data, 28 percent of people transferred to ICE custody through Secure Communities had no criminal background.

Although some cities and states originally believed they could opt out of the program through a memorandum of understanding, ICE recently announced that participation in fingerprint sharing is federally mandated.

A report from the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at Boalt Hall School of Law found that approximately 3,600 U.S. citizens have been arrested by ICE through the Secure Communities program. The report also states that 93 percent of the people arrested through the program are Latino, even though Latinos are only 77 percent of the illegal immigrants in the country.

Next month, Arreguin will present a resolution to Berkeley City Council that would ask the city manager and chief of Berkeley Police Department to revise policies within the police department. One of the revisions would allow the department to choose not to hold individuals for whom ICE has issued an immigration detainer.

Although Berkeley cannot resist information sharing through Secure Communities, the police can choose not to hold individuals for additional time at ICE’s request in order for them to be picked up by the agency.

Arreguin said the proposed policy revision keeps with Berkeley’s status as a city of refuge.

“That means no police or city resources should be used to violate our refuge policy,” Arreguin said.

Although Stierle was eventually released to await an eventual immigration hearing, no date has yet been set, according to Melissa Dickman, Stierle’s friend and one of the organizers of a petition for his release. For now, Stierle is going about his normal life, but the threat of deportation still lingers, she said.

“That’s how it works,” Dickman said. “They put a hold on you, and you never know when they could call you up and you have to start defending yourself.”

Adelyn Baxter is the lead city government reporter.