Critics say immigration program detains less serious offenders

The chief goal of the federal Secure Communities program, in place in Sonoma County since March 2010, is to identify, detain and deport dangerous illegal immigrants.

But since the program took effect, critics have said that it actually catches up as many, if not more, people guilty of offenses that most consider minor, such as driving without a license or shoplifting. Such was the case of Jacobo Farias-Chavez of Santa Rosa, who was pulled over for a traffic violation.

Sonoma County advocates for illegal immigrants' rights are heartened by a steep drop in the number of people handed over to immigration authorities, a drop coinciding with local police agencies' decisions to accept Mexican consular cards as valid identification.

But they remain concerned that Secure Communities is still snaring many people who are far from the violent felons the program aims to nab.

"I don't know anyone in my files who had a serious crime in their background," said Santa Rosa immigration attorney Michelle Crawford.

Farias-Chavez, 32, of Santa Rosa did not have a consular card when Petaluma police pulled him over Sept. 12 for making an illegal turn across a double yellow line. He was booked into the Sonoma County Jail on that charge and also for driving without a license.

Though Farias-Chavez ultimately was not charged in either offense, his identifying information was sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and he was quickly placed into deportation proceedings.

Free on $1,500 bail, the self-employed landscaper, who has three disabled children and, according to court records, no criminal history, said he lives now in a haze of worry.

"I think I've been a good member of society," he said. "I've worked, I've paid taxes, followed the rules."

Drawing a line between who should and shouldn't be automatically put into deportation proceedings is a difficult task, said Terry Tomasini of Sebastopol, a former director of the North Bay Patriots, a group aligned with the tea party political movement.

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