Rockland, Putnam and some Westchester County police departments are beginning to use a federal computerized program that permits fingerprint checks for potential undocumented immigrants.
Law enforcement officials say the U.S. Homeland Security Department's immigration database program, known as Secure Communities, would become part of a routine background check on anyone who is arrested on a felony or misdemeanor charge.
Police now normally check state, county and national law enforcement databases to find out if an arrest warrant has been issued for a suspect or if the suspect has a criminal history.
The program has come under strong criticism from immigrant advocates and civil libertarians. They contend the database opens the door for racial profiling, leading to traffic stops and wrongly detaining people.
Officials said the program doesn't change how officers enforce state laws and they are not enforcing federal immigration laws.
Since Secure Communities began in 2008, the program has been activated in 969 counties in 37 states nationwide, according to the federal government. The program uses computer databases created by the U.S. Department of Justice and Homeland Security Department.
In May, then-Gov. David Paterson and the state Division of Criminal Justice Services signed an agreement to enter into Secure Communities.
Until Rockland became part of the program this month, Putnam was the first county in New York to agree to use the computerized database.
The Westchester County Department of Public Safety will begin participating in the program in February after some administrative issues are worked out, agency spokesman Kieran O'Leary said. Individual police departments in Westchester also are looking into the program."Nothing really has changed," said William McNamara of the Putnam County Sheriff's Department. "We're not enforcing immigration laws. We're arresting people on state criminal charges. When we do our checks based on fingerprints, the immigration database is automatically checked."
Many Westchester County police chiefs heard a pitch about Secure Communities during a meeting last year with officials from the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Tuckahoe Police Chief John Costanzo, who was president of the Westchester Police Chiefs Association at the time.
His department and others are looking into the immigration database, Costanzo said.
"There is a push for law enforcement in Westchester to get involved," Costanzo said. "It's a great resource to keep our communities safer."
Suffern Police Chief Clarke Osborn, president of the Rockland Police Chiefs Association, said all Rockland police departments agreed to connect with the federal database.
He said the program is endorsed by the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriff's Association and the Major County Sheriff's Association.
When a match comes up from a Live Scan fingerprint, the system automatically notifies Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the agency determines what further action, if any, is to be taken, Osborn said.
The program won't be used for traffic violations unless there is an identification issue or a person doesn't have a license, Osborn said.
"This will enable local communities working in cooperation with the DHS to remove the most dangerous criminals from our streets without changing the way that we currently police," Osborn said. "People are reading more into this than they need to and are inflaming the situation."
Immigrant advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union take a dim view of Secure Communities.
Critics have challenged Homeland Security's claims to be targeting dangerous criminals for deportation, contending there has been no correlation between the crime committed and being brought before courts for deportation.
Opponents of the program argue the background checks can be used to target legal and illegal immigrants through racial profiling and deter people from cooperating with law enforcement on criminal investigations.
In some cases, they said, people who have not committed a crime or have legal papers can be held for deportation.
"They say the idea is to get criminal alien people who are violent criminals, but the way the program is set up, so many other people who have not committed any crimes can get caught in the net," said Gail Golden of the Rockland Immigration Coalition.
Golden said people have been stopped on the pretext of having a broken license plate light or some traffic violation in order to check the driver's immigration status. She said that has led to deportations.
"It's one thing to run a criminal background check and another to make a stop to check a person's immigration status," she said.
Golden said the Rockland Immigration Coalition and its supporters would hold a meeting to discuss the program and how it came to Rockland.
Ivan Ortiz, a spokesman for ICE in New York City, said critics who claim the program uses racial profiling don't understand an arrest has to be made on a criminal charge before a person's fingerprints are checked.
He said the number of people transferred to ICE custody from Rockland and Putnam won't be tallied until the end of the month.
Immigration advocates contend that programs like Secure Communities force immigrants — legal or not — underground.
Advocates say the program deters immigrants from reporting crimes, such as being abused or raped, and from getting equal protection from the law.
They contend the program creates the risk of unlawful detention without criminal charges or a hearing.
"This undercuts the community cooperating with the police," Golden said.
Secure Communities is not the first foray into immigration enforcement for Rockland County.
Suffern tried to join a federal program that deputizes its officers to enforce immigration law, but its application was declined because the Rockland County jail already was involved with deportation processes through the Criminal Alien Enforcement Program.
Osborn said the jail wasn't involved in the program when the village applied for the program.
Rockland Sheriff James Kralik said the county jail has signed a formal agreement with ICE, but federal immigration enforcement agents have been checking into inmates at the jail for the past two years. ICE agents routinely check on inmates at local jails.
Kralik said federal agents place immigration detainers on those inmates so they are held for a short period.
Kralik said the Rockland jail is not a holding facility, like the Orange County jail.
"The Obama administration has asked ICE to move forward on illegal aliens who have committed felony crimes," Kralik said.
"These checks have no effect on the community," Kralik said. "Police cannot arrest anyone for being illegal unless there is a warrant. Nothing has drastically changed."