The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General will be conducting an investigation next year of a controversial federal program that requires local law enforcement to run information of people they detain through an immigration database.

In a May 10 letter to California Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D), who has expressed concerns about the program, which is called Secure Communities, acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards said he was planning a review “to determine the extent to which ICE uses the program to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens from the United States.”

But in a response sent Tuesday to Edwards, Lofgren said an investigation cannot wait until 2012.

Lofgren has been one of Congress’s most vocal critics of Secure Communities, which is run by ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In previous letters to ICE and Edwards, Lofgren said the program was not being implemented as federal officials had indicated it would be. 

Lofgren, as well as many other critics of Secure Communities, argues that while ICE promoted the program as a way to identify and deport dangerous criminals, it was also sweeping up undocumented immigrants who had not committed crimes. She has said it could actually make communities less safe by making immigrants afraid of contacting police when they have witnessed a crime or been a victim.

“An investigation of the Secure Communities program is pressing,” said the congresswoman, who chaired the House immigration subcommittee when her party was in the majority, in her letter to Edwards. “I urge you to begin your review as soon as possible.”

The debate over Secure Communities has intensified in recent months, as local and state officials weigh the benefits against the negative aspects of the program, which the Obama Administration has said it hopes to implement nationwide by 2013.

In Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick has backtracked on his promise not to sign onto the program, officials have held town forums on the issue that often have become contentious.

In New York, advocates of more lenient immigration policies have held demonstrations outside the Manhattan office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to press him to withdraw New York from the program.

In recent weeks, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn suspended his state’s participation in Secure Communities, saying that the implementation of the program in 26 counties was “contrary to what was established” in their memorandum of understanding with the federal government.

Quinn said that in contrast to ICE’s characterization of the people who would be pursued under the program, the majority of the people deported through Secure Communities had not been convicted of serious crimes.

This year, an undocumented woman in California who called 911 to report that her boyfriend was assaulting her ended up fingerprinted herself after police found scratches on the man. 

The woman, Isaura Garcia, ended up in deportation proceedings after ICE became aware of her illegal status when local California authorities ran her fingerprints through the federal database. After widespread criticism, ICE opted not to move forward with Garcia’s removal from the United States.

But opponents of the program seized on Garcia’s experience to argue that Secure Communities too often puts emphasis on people who do not pose a public safety threat, and alienates immigrant communities from local police.

Department of Homeland Security officials say on their website that the program is “an effective tool” that tracks down foreign nationals tied to such crimes as “homicide, rape, kidnapping” and helps prevent their “being released back into communities” by making sure they continue to be held – under immigration custody – after completing their sentence, and sent back to their country.

But immigration officials also defend the detention and deportation of non-criminals who are found to be living here illegally, which is a civil offense.

“As ICE has made clear, it also prioritizes the removal of aliens who have been previously removed and re-entered the United States unlawfully or are fugitives subject to a final order or removal,” wrote John Morton, assistant secretary of ICE, to Lofgren.

Groups that support strict immigration enforcement say the U.S. government is correct to track down and deport people who are in the country illegally, if they have not committed crimes.

In a statement on its website, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, based in Washington D.C., defended the program.

"While Secure Communities is specifically designed to identify and remove criminal aliens, there is no reason why illegal aliens without criminal convictions should not also be deported," it said. "Contrary to the apparent position of. . .advocates for illegal aliens, illegal aliens do not need to have committed other offenses in order to be removed from the country."

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