The federal government's Secure Communities program, which expedites the deportation of undocumented immigrants under police custody, has become an issue in the sheriff's race here in Travis County, Texas.

According to John Sisson, a former Austin Police Department lieutenant who is challenging incumbent Sheriff Greg Hamilton in the Democratic primary, the way S-COMM is now being run has a negative impact on Hispanic immigrants.

"What is happening is inhumane. No one in Austin and its suburbs can drive a car for fear of being jailed and deported for a simple traffic violation," the retired cop said in an interview with Efe.

But Hamilton, who aspires to a third term, said in a statement to the press that his job as far as immigration matters are concerned has been to follow existing regulations and hand over detainees to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"The only one that can deport and put an immigration detainer on an individual is an ICE agent, not us," the sheriff said. "At the Travis County Jail, we follow the law, and the law says that when an ICE detainer is put on, the law enforcement agency shall hold that individual for 48 hours."

But Sisson says that Travis County's high volume of arrests resulting in deportation ought to be investigated as soon as possible.

According to figures provided by ICE, from June 2009 to September 2011, Travis County fingerprinted 80,731 individuals, of whom 2,269 immigrants were deported.

Of that number, more than 900 foreigners were classified as Level 3, convicted for a traffic offense or a misdemeanor.

Secure Communities is a good program, but only when you use it to punish those who don't deserve to be in this country because of their criminal record.

- Thomas Esparza Jr., an attorney specializing in immigration law

For Thomas Esparza Jr., an attorney specializing in immigration law, there are several elements that place Hamilton in an uncomfortable position regarding the enforcement of S-COMM, such as its basic promise to pursue only criminals accused of major crimes.

"Secure Communities is a good program, but only when you use it to punish those who don't deserve to be in this country because of their criminal record. But the numbers of those detained and deported for minor infractions do not help Hamilton, rather they work against him," Esparza told Efe.

"And the other fact against him is that in Bexar County (including San Antonio), where there are more Hispanics than in Travis, there have been fewer, far fewer deportations of undocumented immigrants for minor infractions," the attorney said.

In Bexar, where 58 percent of the 1.75 million residents are Latino, more than 105,000 individuals were fingerprinted and only 1,479 immigrants were deported between 2009 and 2011.

Just over 33.5 percent of Travis County's 1.02 million people are of Hispanic origin.

S-COMM is being enforced in 2,730 - around 86 percent - of U.S. counties.

The winner of the May 29 primary between Hamilton and Sisson will face Republican Raymond Frank, who was Travis County sheriff from 1973-1980, in November.

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