WASHINGTON -- Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) took a moment on Wednesday to question a congressional witness about how he moved to the United States from Mexico, after the former police chief mentioned in his testimony that he is an immigrant. At the same hearing, Democrats on the House immigration subcommittee pushed for immigration officials to add safeguards against racial profiling in immigration enforcement.
"You said you're likely the only immigrant on the panel," King said to Arturo Venegas, who was testifying in front of the House immigration subcommittee. "I wonder if you could tell us how was it you were inspired to come to the United States."
Venegas, a former Sacramento police chief, responded by telling King that his U.S.-born mother brought him to the country after he was born in Mexico. "Can you just tell us what year and what visa, then, Mr. Venegas?" King asked.
King never followed up with a reason for his questions, which came after Venegas testified about his experiences as Sacramento, Calif., police chief and his service on a task force to reform Secure Communities, a key immigration enforcement program.
Venegas was the only member of the four-person panel to criticize the program, saying it could damage community policing efforts by making immigrants fearful of the police.
House Democrats echoed that charge, demanding that Immigration and Customs Enforcement take steps to improve the program by targeting only dangerous criminals. One Democrat said she is concerned about racial profiling, and demanded that the agency take additional steps to prevent law enforcement agents from factoring race into their decisions about arrests.
"Do you go and pick out brown people and others who look like they shouldn't be here?" Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement official Gary Mead at the hearing.
"Absolutely not," Mead said.
The meeting was the first congressional hearing on Secure Communities, which has been in place for three years. The program has support from an unlikely alliance between the Obama administration and Republicans, both of whom say it helps the government find and deport criminals.
Democrats in Congress remain skeptical of Secure Communities, saying it has too many flaws. Among them, they said, is a possibility for racial profiling, because the program bases its detection of undocumented immigrants on fingerprints taken during arrests.
In theory, the program should prevent racial profiling. Anyone booked by police after an arrest has his or her fingerprints taken and submitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Under Secure Communities, these fingerprints are then handed over to immigration enforcement, which screens to detect unauthorized immigrants.
But critics say that in practice, law enforcement officers could take different actions for people they suspect are undocumented, such as arresting an individual for a traffic violation instead of just issuing a ticket.
Although not necessarily due to racial profiling, research has shown that Latinos are disproportionately arrested under Secure Communities. Latinos made up 93 percent of Secure Communities arrests, according to a report from University of California, Berkeley Law School analyzing data from Oct. 2008 to Dec. 2010, even though they make up an estimated 77 percent of the undocumented population.
Some of those arrested in Secure Communities say it is because they were racially profiled. U.S. citizen Antonio Montejano, a 40-year-old father of four, spoke before the hearing about his Nov. 5 arrest and subsequent immigration hold under the program. Despite repeatedly telling officers he is a native-born citizen, Montejano said he was held in Los Angeles County jail until Nov. 9.
"I felt completely powerless," he said at a press conference. "I told every officer that I was an American citizen and nobody listened. I felt that the only reason they ignored me was because of the color of my skin, because I looked like I was from another country."
Mead said later that the agency has policies in place to detect potential racial profiling, including a program with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to look through data for irregularities on race. He said complaints about potential abuse of the program by law enforcement officers are taken very seriously.
"Where we get an indication that there may be problems with how they're applying the program, investigations ensue," Mead said.