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Immigration rally (5-1-10)
Marchers protest the Dane County Jail policy of reporting noncitizen inmates to immigration authorities during a rally in 2010.

A federal program called "Secure Communities" now being implemented in Wisconsin lets Immigration and Customs Enforcement know when local jails take someone into custody who is not documented and may be deportable.

Sound familiar?

Yep, it's similar enough to the controversial practices of the Dane County Jail, I'm told, that the jail won't be changing what it does at all. "They talked to us about rolling it out," says Capt. Jeff Teuscher of ICE agents. "They said we don't have to change anything we're doing now."

I'm wondering if Secure Communities, which ICE wants nationwide by the end of 2013, could change the climate for immigrant rights in Dane County.

The launch in Wisconsin of the program, which automatically sends the fingerprints of inmates to ICE's database for identification and screening, was announced this week. But the deal was sealed in October when the state Department of Justice quietly entered into an agreement with ICE.

Those pacts with ICE have stirred controversy in other states, like Colorado, where an outgoing governor drew fire by signing on; and Washington, where state officials said no thanks to becoming immigration authorities.

The national debate echoes concerns simmering in Dane County that prompted a task force to call on Sheriff Dave Mahoney last year to end the Dane County Jail practice of notifying ICE when it books someone who can't show he is legally in the country.

"We don't believe we can create safe communities by making immigrant communities fearful and mistrustful of law enforcement, and that is the result of authorizing local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws," says Luis Yudice, chairman of the Dane County Immigration Task Force. He acknowledges immigrants rights are an unpopular issue at the moment, but wants the County Board to put it to public debate.

Mahoney steadfastly defends the notification practice as needed for jail safety and an appropriate assist to federal law enforcement officials.

The thing about Secure Communities is, it may be the county can't opt out of cooperating with immigration authorities.

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That's what ICE says. Local officials in Arlington County, Va.; Washington, D.C., and San Francisco have tried to opt out, but they don't have the power to, ICE director John Morton in October told the Associated Press, because the operating agreements are with the states.

Wisconsin's participation in the program is being condemned by Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group. Secure Communities "casts too wide of a net, abusing due process rights so that someone who is innocent of a charge will still end up in deportation proceedings," says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director. She cites ICE statistics that as of December, more than 25 percent (13,054 of 50,972) of all deportations nationwide since the 2008 launch of the program were of non-criminal immigrants. This despite assurances by the Obama administration to focus ICE's deportation efforts on criminal offenders.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the program denies immigrants equal protection; creates the risk of unlawful detention without a hearing; and invites law enforcement officers to profile and arrest people they suspect may be undocumented. The civil liberties advocacy group is calling on the government to halt the program until it answers these concerns and questions on the program's rules and oversight.

Confusion over the program abounds -- including if and how communities can opt out -- and information is so scarce that the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Cardozo Law School are in federal court to compel ICE to comply with requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. A judge has ordered ICE to hand it over. 

The dawn of Secure Communities here may silence opposition to the practice of flagging inmates for ICE, if local sheriffs have no choice but to assist immigration authorities, as the ICE chief contends. Or a federal program that conscripts local resources for immigration enforcement may refocus concerns on practices here that still might prove to be under local control.

I guess it's up to the people of Dane County.