Immigration Effort Mistakenly Holds U.S. Citizens

fromKQED

A growing number of U.S. citizens have been mistakenly detained as part of the Secure Communities program. It's a federal effort to detect and deport illegal immigrants who've been arrested by local law enforcement. In Los Angeles recently, four native-born citizens — all Latino — have been held for days at a time.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Staying in California, we'll look now at how a federal program is playing out in Los Angeles. A growing number of U.S. citizens have been mistakenly detained as part of the Secure Communities program. It's a high-tech effort to detect and deport illegal immigrants who have been arrested by local law enforcement.

As Krissy Clark from member station KQED reports, in L.A. four native-born citizens, all Latino, have been held days at a time in the last few months.

KRISSY CLARK, BYLINE: Antonio Montejano is a 40-year-old construction supervisor and father of four.

ANTONIO MONTEJANO: I was born in Los Angeles, California, and I am an American citizen.

CLARK: But, Montejano says, when he told that to his jailors last month, again and again, they didn't believe him. Montejano was arrested after shopping with his family at Sears. He says they spent $600 but forgot to pay for a $10 bottle of perfume his daughter had asked for.

After he plead guilty to petty theft, a judge dropped the fine against him and told the police to let him go. Instead, authorities kept him locked in an L.A. county jail for two more days, because a federal database had flagged him as a possible illegal immigrant.

MONTEJANO: Those days in the jail were some of the worst days in my life. I felt completely powerless.

CLARK: Cases like Montejano's are becoming more common, according to Hector Villagra with the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the federal database kept by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, isn't always right.

HECTOR VILLAGRA: But ICE shoots first and asks questions later. As a result, ICE often mistakenly issues holds against lawful residents and sometimes even U.S. citizens.

STEVE WHITMORE: And we certainly don't want that to occur.

CLARK: Steve Whitmore is a spokesman for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Civil rights groups have called on the county to limit participation in Secure Communities, given the mistakes. County and federal officials say they're working together to improve the database. But, Whitmore says, the intent of the program is still sound.

WHITMORE: Serious criminals that are in this country illegally should be deported and not allowed back in.

CLARK: As for U.S. citizen Antonio Montejano, it took sending copies of his passport and birth certificate to immigration authorities to finally get him released. When he got home, his eight-year-old son, who's also an American citizen, had a question for him.

MONTEJANO: Dad, can this happen to me? Because I look like you?

CLARK: A recent UC Berkeley study estimates that more than 3,000 citizens nationwide have been mistakenly detained under Secure Communities.

For NPR News, I'm Krissy Clark in Los Angeles.

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