MELISSA BLOCK, host: There was heated testimony last night in Chicago - the latest in a series of hearings around the country about a key federal immigration program. It's called Secure Communities. The public meetings are providing a noisy venue for protesters who want the program dismantled and for its backers who say it's making America safer. As Chip Mitchell of Chicago Public Radio reports, those who oppose the law have a high-profile ally in their fight - the governor of Illinois.

CHIP MITCHELL: The Secure Communities program enables the federal government to use fingerprints from local police agencies to identify jail inmates who lack permission to be in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security is looking for ways to keep the program from eroding community trust in local law enforcement. The department has held hearings in Dallas, Los Angeles and, last night, Chicago.

UNIDENTIFED WOMAN #1: We resign from this hearing. We think you should resign too and join us outside. There's only...


MITCHELL: There was more than an hour of passionate testimony. A Mexican-born mother said Chicago police arrested her husband after a mix-up over some broken car windows. He ended up in deportation proceedings. The woman held up a federal order for him to board a flight back to Mexico this morning.

UNIDENTIFED WOMAN #2: He's leaving. Do you really think that this program is working? How many more families have to suffer?

MITCHELL: But retired teacher Brian McCann brought up a hit-and-run incident that killed a Chicago pedestrian this summer. McCann said the victim was his brother and the driver, an illegal immigrant.

BRIAN MCCANN: The offender hit him and then stepped on the gas, rolling over his body and dragged him several blocks. The offender had recently completed two years' probation for another aggravated felony DUI.

MITCHELL: The Obama administration says Secure Communities is just the tool for deporting such felons. Since the program's 2008 launch, officials say it's led to the removal of more than 86,000 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. The program has also snared thousands of others who've not been convicted. In May, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn pulled his state out of the federal initiative. New York and Massachusetts followed with similar steps. But, this month, the Obama administration told states they have no choice. Attorney Brittney Nystrom of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum sees grounds for a court challenge. She points, for example, to a federal agreement for Illinois to take part in Secure Communities in the first place.

BRITTNEY NYSTROM: There is a termination clause that at least Governor Quinn activated when he decided to opt out of the program.

MITCHELL: So, Nystrom says the Obama administration may be vulnerable in court. Attorneys with two immigrant advocacy groups say they're talking with Governor Quinn's office about legal options. But a Quinn spokeswoman says it's too soon to discuss any options. The federal government, for its part, is playing down the Illinois agreement. Here's Jon Gurule of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

JON GURULE: It was one of those things where we wanted to be able to work with the locals and let them know about the program. But, from the operational side, it's federal information sharing between two federal agencies, and it's congressionally mandated.

MITCHELL: And the federal government is expected to hear even more debate when it holds another public hearing on Secure Communities next week, close to the nation's capitol in Arlington, Virginia. For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.

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