Leticia Morua, a mother of three, was placed under deportation proceedings after she was pulled over for driving without a working headlight. She was detained for 22 days. She’s living in Bolingbrook with her family while she waits for an immigration judge to rule on her case. Photo by Joe Gallo.

Sitting in DuPage County Jail, Leticia Morua sobbed uncontrollably, unable to answer questions during the booking interview.

“I felt humiliated,” Morua said. “I was terrified thinking I would never see my children again.”

The DuPage County deputy sheriff interviewing Morua got tired of waiting for answers and started screaming, “There is nothing you can do. You’re an illegal. Why do you want to be here if you don’t have papers?”

“I kept thinking about my children,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to see them again. They are so small and harmless. What were they going to do without their mother?”

Only a few hours earlier, just before 7 a.m. on March 8, 2010, she was driving to work when the deputy pulled her over for driving without a working headlight near Downers Grove. Having no driver’s license, Morua was arrested.

Morua, 37, spent one night at the jail before being transported to the Kenosha County immigration center in Wisconsin. She didn’t know where she was. She was disoriented, depressed and unable to contact her husband.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants with minor criminal offenses, like Morua’s , have been turned over to U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement custody by local enforcement agencies under a federal program called Secure Communities since its launch in 2008. The initiative is designed to deport immigrants who commit a crime, but many have ended up in immigration custody even when their arrest never led to a charge or conviction, The Chicago Reporter found.

In Illinois, 46 percent of 3,023 people who were booked into immigration custody under Secure Communities between Nov. 24, 2009, and July 25, 2011, were never charged with, or convicted of, the crimes for which they were arrested, shows the Reporter analysis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security records.

Another 29 percent were charged with one misdemeanor, which in many cases stemmed from a traffic violation, like Morua’s, before being taken into immigration custody, the analysis shows.

About 14 percent of those booked into immigration custody had committed an “aggravated felony”—a category of offenses punishable by a year or more in prison—and 10 percent had three or more misdemeanors.

The numbers contradict the officials’ tough-on-hardened-criminals rhetoric touting the program, said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “One of the huge issues we see is the fact that so many people who don’t have criminal or only minor criminal record are being caught up,” Tsao said.

The program also diminishes trust between local law enforcement agencies and immigrant communities by turning any encounter with police into a potential deportation, critics said.

“Word travels fast in our community, especially when it comes to [deportations] and what caused it,” said Luis Gutierrez, executive director of Latinos Progresando. “Immigrants start thinking, ‘Why would I call the police if the last time we called the police it turned into a deportation?’”

Gutierrez added that the program could also encourage law enforcement officers to racially profile immigrants—or people who look or sound foreign.

“Racial profiling is a huge problem mainly outside Chicago in the suburbs,” he said. “Now, stopping an immigrant for driving without a working light could turn into a deportation.”

But immigration officials said Secure Communities is doing exactly what it was intended to do: boot out immigrants who commit a crime. Ninety-four percent of immigrants deported through the program are among the “priority” population for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to go after, said Jon Gurule, assistant director of the Secure Communities program.

“If you look at those individuals, the so-called noncriminal, how many of those were previously removed [from the country]?” Gurule asked. “How many of those are fugitives?”

Nicole Navas, spokeswoman for the immigration agency, added the number of serious criminals deported under Secure Communities will increase as the program continues.

“Over time, the percentage of serious offenders removed through Secure Communities will continue to increase, as those convicted of misdemeanors will decrease,” Navas said. “This reflects the fact that people who commit more serious crimes serve longer sentences and consequently take longer to come into [immigration] custody.”

But critics said that their concerns about the program, which is expected to be implemented nationwide by 2013, will only intensify if similar enforcement patterns continue.

“If the program expands, you could see more immigrants without criminal records potentially being placed in deportation proceedings,” said Amalia Pallares, associate professor of political science and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I’m still concerned that, even with the administrative order and prosecutorial discretion, immigrants could be deported—the system is still in place, and the fingerprints are still being shared.”

*     *     *

Authorized by Congress in 2008, Secure Communities has been embraced by President Barack Obama’s administration as one of the central pieces of its immigration policy. Its intended purpose is to “identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety,” said Janet Napolitano, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a year after the program was launched.

Nationwide, 1,595 jurisdictions, including 26 of the 102 counties in Illinois, signed up for the program.

Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of anyone arrested by local law enforcement agencies are submitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which then shares the information with the homeland security department’s Automated Biometric Identification System. The system has more than 124 million biometric records, including records of criminals, immigration-law violators, as well as non-U.S. citizens who’ve had only lawful interactions with the federal government—such as applying for a visa and legally entering the country.

Once immigration-law violators are found, the immigration agency can submit a “detainer” to local jails and have up to 48 hours to place them into its custody.

Navas said the program has had numerous coups. In October 2010, for example, Naperville police arrested a Mexican citizen for predatory criminal sexual assault of a child. His fingerprint records revealed that he had been issued a deportation order in 2008, with a five-year ban from re-entering the country.

But the Reporter’s analysis shows that the program also led to the detention of thousands of immigrants who had not been charged with, or convicted of, any crime.

In Illinois, 3,023 people were booked into immigration custody between Nov. 24, 2009, and July 25, 2011, under Secure Communities, but 1,397 of them, or 46 percent, were never charged with, or convicted of, the crimes for which they were arrested.

Nationally, more than 193,000 people were booked into immigration custody between Oct. 27, 2008, and June 30, 2011, under Secure Communities. Nearly 64,000, or 33 percent, of them were never charged with, or convicted of, the crimes for which they were arrested.

Among all states, California had the highest number of people booked into immigration custody under Secure Communities—about 103,000. About a third of them were never charged with, or convicted of, the crime for which they were arrested, and another 21 percent had one misdemeanor charge. Illinois ranked fifth for its number of people in immigration custody, while the lowest number was recorded in Montana, with 11 people in immigration custody.

Since its inception, the program has been met with varying degrees of resistance from local communities. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn wrote in his May 4 letter to immigration officials that the state is opting out of the program.

“Due to the conflict between the stated purpose of Secure Communities and the implementation of the program, [the Illinois State Police] will no longer participate in the Secure Communities program,” Quinn wrote.

Massachusetts and New York followed suit shortly after.

But, in August, John Morton, director of the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, announced that the program required no authorization from local communities, and that it will be fully operational throughout the country by 2013.

Anna Law, associate professor at DePaul University and immigration law expert, said the dispute will likely end up in court. “The states are profoundly upset because they are fronting the cost [of enforcing] immigration laws, and the federal government is not helping,” she said.
Responding to criticism, the Obama administration announced in June that it would review 300,000 pending deportation cases and use its “prosecutorial discretion” to temporarily halt deportations for “low priority” cases.

Law said the announcement is supposed to “soften the blow of the harsh effects” of Secure Communities, but it leaves too many unknowns.

The federal government is “now telling local offices to review these cases and suspend the removal. It sounds like a great idea, but the implementation has been awful,” she said. “Who is doing the screening? A lot of these files are paper files. Who is going to review them? Immigrants are at the mercy of the government.”

Mony Ruiz-Velasco, director of legal services at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, said she has come across some cases that are labeled as “low priority” but still being pursued by immigration officials.

“The judge was very sympathetic,” Ruiz-Velasco said about a case involving an undocumented immigrant who had no criminal record. “But the [immigration] attorney said they were not going to exercise prosecutorial discretion.”

Navas disagreed. She said the immigration enforcement agency has always used prosecutorial discretion to better use the agency’s limited resources.

The immigration agency “has issued guidance for [its] law enforcement personnel and attorneys regarding their authority to exercise discretion when appropriate,” Navas said in a written statement. “The directive clearly states that the exercise of discretion is inappropriate in cases involving threats to public safety, national security and other agency priorities. This guidance also directs the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to ensure that victims of and witnesses to crimes are properly protected.”

*     *     *

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Zane Seipler, a McHenry County deputy sheriff, drove his black Nissan Pathfinder to give an unusual tour of sorts. Instead of landmarks, his sightseeing spots were all seemingly unremarkable—from a Latino beauty salon in Crystal Lake to a mostly Latino apartment complex in McHenry.

All the locations, Seipler said, were prime spots where his co-workers used to pull over Latino drivers. “This is a quiet county,” he said. “The easiest way to get an arrest is to find someone without a driver’s license.”

And the quickest way to find people without a driver’s license, Seipler said, is by targeting Latino drivers. Some deputies follow Latino drivers and search the plate number in a database looking for two things: Latino last names and driver’s license information, he said.

“To me, that’s just lazy police work, but it makes you look like you did something,” he said.

McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygre said his deputies don’t enforce immigration laws, but driving without a valid driver’s license is a crime in Illinois. And he denied accusations of racial profiling.

“We don’t arrest anyone for being illegal,” he said. “There is always a probable cause” for each arrest.

Seipler, who worked as a McHenry County deputy for four years, thinks otherwise. He started questioning the department’s arrest pattern when he noticed that a handful of deputies kept arresting people with no driver’s license, making up to four such arrests daily—something he didn’t think would be doable if it weren’t for racial profiling.

Seipler was fired in 2008 for, according to the sheriff’s office, violating rules and regulations. Seipler said he was fired because he spoke up against racial profiling and filed a lawsuit alleging a wrongful termination. In September, an appellate court judge ordered the sheriff’s office to reinstate Seipler.

Seipler wasn’t surprised to hear that, according to the Reporter analysis of jail records, 74 percent of McHenry County Jail inmates for whom immigration detainers were issued between January 2010 and July 2011 ended up at the facility for a minor traffic violation—including improper traffic lane usage, failure to obey a stop sign and speeding.

In five Illinois counties, including McHenry, 200 or more inmates were put into immigration custody between Nov. 24, 2009, and July 25, 2011. Among the five counties, DuPage County has had the highest number of people—976 in all—transferred to immigration custody. McHenry County, meanwhile, has had 222 inmates transferred to immigration custody, and 58 percent—the highest rate among the five—were never charged with, or convicted of, the crimes for which they were arrested.

Residents of Garden Quarter Apartment Complex in McHenry seemed well-aware of how these numbers play out in their neighborhood.
One undocumented resident, who declined to be named out of fear of being deported, said he is often scared of police when he drives to work. He described how a female police officer drives around his apartment complex or parks outside waiting for Latino drivers.

“We stopped going out. We go to work and to get groceries on our way back [from work], but that’s it,” he said. “We try to drive as little as possible.”

Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights was skeptical that the Obama administration, which pledged to address the issue by assigning the Office of Civil Rights to investigate racial profiling complaints, can allay the concerns. “The real question is whether they are going to be able to handle it,” Tsao said. “It’s an office of 100 people. There is only so much the office can do.”

*     *     *

In August, hundreds of people gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Hall, in downtown Chicago, for a public hearing hosted by the homeland security department’s newly appointed Task Force on Secure Communities, which was formed to address concerns raised by critics.

As Becca Sharp, the executive director of Homeland Security Advisory Council, a body created under the homeland security department, opened the meeting by clarifying that none of the members of the task force worked for the department.

“We are not federal employees,” Sharp told the crowd. “This is the community’s best chance to be heard. I’ve spent 17 years of my life defending immigrants’ rights.”

But the attendees didn’t pay attention to Sharp’s announcement. The crowd demanded the task force members’ resignation. And after only a few speakers, Alaa Mukahhal, a member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, a Chicago-based group of young activists, asked the attendees to walk out of the public meeting as a form of protest—mimicking immigration activists in Los Angeles during a similar meeting the day before.

More than half of the attendees walked out. Seven students then blocked a portion of Washington Street for about 20 minutes and later blocked the I-94 exit. The students were arrested, each charged with mob action and obstruction of traffic.

Inside the hearing room, immigrants facing deportation shared their stories hoping to persuade immigration officials to let them stay in the country.

Arturo Venegas Jr., a task force member, listened carefully to each story. Venegas, who is a founder of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, an organization for law enforcement agencies to start a dialogue about immigration, had traveled across the country for the hearing.

Venegas, a former chief of the Sacramento Police Department, said he understood why immigrant advocates wanted to show their disapproval of the Secure Communities program by walking out. His goal is to help the federal government go back to the original goal of the program, which was to deport criminals.

If the immigration agency “would only focus on [deporting] serious offenders, this program would have no problems,” he said.
Police should not be enforcing immigration laws, Venegas added. “I don’t think by and large law enforcement in this country wants to be involved in immigration enforcement, and there has to be some clarity,” he said. “It is affecting community policing and is affecting relationships not only with police but with a lot of other agencies. That’s not good for the community, and that’s not good for the country.”

In September, the task force released a list of its recommendations, including one calling for the program to not be used for detaining immigrants who were arrested for minor traffic violations. The immigration agency “should not issue detainers or initiate removal proceedings on persons identified through Secure Communities based on arrest for minor traffic offenses,” the recommendation said.

But the recommendations did not go far enough, according to Venegas and four other task force members who resigned in protest. For Venegas, the recommendations should have ensured that the deportation would not be triggered for all minor offenses, including traffic violations, according to his resignation letter.

For Morua, the DuPage County immigrant, how the immigration agency adopts the task force’s recommendations could make or break her case against deportation.

Following her arrest in March, Morua spent 22 days in a haze while detained at the Wisconsin detention center. She couldn’t sleep and was consumed by thoughts of her children and husband. When she talked to her children on the phone, it made her stay at the detention unbearable, she said.

“My children would ask me, ‘Where are you, mommy? Is it true that you’re in jail?’” she said. “I would just tell them that I was at work. They would say, ‘Mommy, I want to be with you.’ I cried every time.”

Gloria Najera, Morua’s attorney, filed for a bond hearing, but it took more than two weeks to get the case in front of an immigration judge.

The judge granted a $1,500 bond.

On June 16, 2010, she pleaded guilty to driving without a license. She paid $100 and was given probation for a year.

But Morua’s deportation case is still pending. Najera said she filed a petition to cancel the deportation proceeding because it would cause her family extreme hardship.

Morua moved to Bolingbrook in 1998 with her husband, Alfredo, because of the lack of economic opportunities in their native Zacatecas, Mexico.

A year after she moved to DuPage County, she had her first son. She now has three children and wants to stay in the country to provide an education and a better future, she said.

“She’s been in the country for more than 10 years and is a person of good moral character,” Najera said. “She has children who are U.S. citizens and would suffer extreme hardship if they had to move.”

Alfredo agreed. “We came here to provide a better future for our children,” he said. “We respect the laws here. Our only crime was crossing the border illegally.”

Crystal Vance Guerra helped research this article. 

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...