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.
"If we've got people who are ethical, moral people that are actually trying to make a living, they're not abusing our entitlements and are just trying to better themselves, they certainly are not a practical drag or harm," he said.
"But the precedent that has been set (by the matricula policy) absolutely opens a floodgate," he said. "It's a troubling situation with no easy answer."
ICE, of course, has the authority to detain and deport anyone who is in the country without permission, whether or not they have a criminal history.
But after border security operations, Secure Communities is the chief channel through which illegal immigrants are sent into deportation proceedings.
And determining how many people caught in a program aimed at violent felons fit that profile — and how many do not — is a preoccupation of critics.
While ICE data shows that far fewer people are being handed over to the agency from Sonoma County — 484 in the past 12 months, compared to 921 in the first year — it is far less clear about who they are.
"I'd like to see a breakdown of the numbers. How many have felony convictions?" said Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney and a vocal Secure Communities opponent.
The Sheriff's Office has declined numerous requests for specific information about those people it has turned over to ICE, such as the crimes for which they were arrested or how many were known to be gang members.
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