When people are booked into jail, their fingerprints are taken.
Local law enforcement agencies then send fingerprints to the FBI to check on outstanding warrants or a person’s criminal history. But the fingerprints don’t stop there, either. Under a program called Secure Communities, the FBI automatically sends the fingerprints it receives to the Department of Homeland Security, which checks for hits in an immigration database.
And that program has been associated with at least 15,800 deportations in North Carolina over the last decade, including more than 3,000 in Mecklenburg County, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — or TRAC — at Syracuse University.
TRAC Director Susan Long says the report, which is updated when new information is available, is based on data obtained directly from ICE through the Freedom of Information Act. The people reflected in the finding are anonymous, but there's still information about the types of cases involved.
"We don't know who these persons are – just things about them in terms of nationality and criminal history or absence thereof," Long said.
In the last year, the number of deportations associated with the program has gone down. In general, North Carolina reflects that trend, Long said. In Mecklenburg, deportations associated with the program involved people from 67 countries. The vast majority – nearly 2,000 of the roughly 3,200 cases recorded – involved people with Mexican citizenship.
When ICE decides to act on a fingerprint hit, the agency can ask local law enforcement to honor a detainer request. A detainer allows a jail to keep a non-citizen inmate up to two days even if bail has been posted or if a local judge has issued a release order if there's probable cause to believe the inmate can be deported. Compliance with such detainers is voluntary.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden stopped honoring ICE detainers in December. The sheriff's office, which runs the jail in Charlotte, says fingerprints are taken for every booking and that all fingerprints are sent to the FBI.
The TRAC report shows 83 Safe Communities-related deportations in Mecklenburg from January through April, but Long says those could stem from cases that started before McFadden’s tenure.
But even if detainers aren't honored, a fingerprint hit gives ICE an idea of where to look for a person.
TRAC has a searchable tool through which people can see state- and county-specific removals associated with Secure Communities from late 2008, when the program began, through April 2019.
Secure Communities started during the tail end of the George W. Bush administration and was associated with its highest numbers of deportations during the early years of the Obama administration.
But the Obama administration changed things
— to a degree — in 2014. The name was gone, but Long says the fingerprinting practice and underlying program continued.
"They worked on focusing the program on truly individuals that posed a real security risk to the community – serious criminals that everybody would think of in that light, not somebody who had just a traffic ticket or someone who may be undocumented and therefore without papers," Long said. "They also focused on recent border crossers, recognizing that there are an estimated 10 million to 11 million people in the country without papers, and many of them have resided here for a long time with families, working in the community, even with U.S. citizen children."
Long says the use of detainers also eased up a bit. The number of deportations associated with the program declined.
In 2017, President Trump reinstated Secure Communities and the numbers of deportations associated with the program initially spiked.
According to ICE, the program had led to the removal of at least 363,400 people from its inception to the end of fiscal year 2017. The agency says it prioritizes removal proceedings for "individuals who present the most significant threats to public safety."
But Long says there's been an uptick since 2017 in cases of minor offenses leading to deportations via the program.
"We're also seeing, when we think of someone as a convicted criminal, we're talking a lot of traffic violations, drunk driving violations, and we're also seeing a lot of individuals where their offense … wouldn't be an offense of a U.S. citizen — someone who had entered illegally and been removed."
Illegal re-entry is a felony.
TRAC breaks down the cases by most serious criminal conviction of the people who were deported via the program. Most cases in North Carolina involved no criminal conviction, according to the data. The next most common category was people who'd been convicted of driving under the influence, followed by assault and other traffic offenses.
The cases in Mecklenburg and Wake counties – which make up 44% of Secure Communities-associated deportations in the state per TRAC – largely follow that trend.
Statewide, there were more than 740 cases in which violent or weapons-related crimes were the most serious convictions connected to Secure Communities-associated deportations, according to TRAC. Of those, 282 deportations were assaults. Seven hundred eighty-four cases weren't attached to a conviction, and nearly 800 cases were connected to people whose most serious convictions were DUIs or other traffic offenses.