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As Obama courts Latinos, deportation program under scrutiny

Isaura Garcia recounts her arrest under the Secure Communities Program
Isaura Garcia, at podium, cries in Los Angeles, Aug. 15, 2011, as she recounts her arrest under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secure Communities Program, which was created in 2008 and calls for police to submit suspects' fingerprints to DHS so they can be cross-checked with federal deportation orders. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Support from Latino voters is key for President Obama as he seeks re-election. But immigration advocates say his policies may be working against him.

A new study shows that one of his deportation programs disproportionately impacts Latino households and has even led to the arrest of hundreds of U.S. citizens by immigration authorities.

"Latinos [are] waking up to the fact that President Obama and the Democrats are no better than Republicans on immigration," said Roberto Lovato, co-founder of the Latino advocacy group, pointing to Mr. Obama's falling approval ratings among Latinos.

"In fact, they're worse right now because they're in power and deporting more people than President Bush did," Lovato told CBS News Political Hotsheet.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced yesterday that the agency made a record number of deportations in the twelve months through September -- nearly 400,000. ICE's aggressive deportation efforts are aided by Secure Communities, a controversial program that uses information from local police forces to enforce federal immigration laws.

A random sample of 375 Secure Communities deportation cases revealed five cases of United States citizens held by immigration agents for no clear reason, according to the study, conducted by researchers at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.

The data was acquired from the partial settlement of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought against the government by the Cardozo School of Law, as well as groups opposed to Secure Communities, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National DayLaborer Organizing Network.

While 375 cases represents a small sample, the researchers used the data to conclude that at least 680 U.S. citizens and possibly as many as 6,574 have been held under Secure Communities.

"The findings point to a system in which individuals are pushed through rapidly, without appropriate checks or opportunities to challenge their detention and/or deportation," the study says. "This conclusion is particularly concerning given that the findings also reveal that people are being apprehended who should never have been placed in immigration custody."

The Obama administration says the study does not accurately reflect the program, the New York Times reports. Unnamed administration officials told the Times some naturalized citizens could have been held under the program, since Secure Communities runs fingerprints collected by local police through Department of Homeland Security databases -- which include histories of immigrants who applied for citizenship. If a person is flagged, immigration agents may hold that person while their immigration status is checked.

"Any suggestion that we are knowingly arresting or detaining U.S. citizens would be false and a misrepresentation," said ICE director John Morton, according to the Times.

The report also found that 93 percent of individuals arrested through Secure Communities were Latino, even though Latinos make up 77 percent of the undocumented population. Additionally, more than a third of approximately 226,000 immigrants deported under the program reported having a spouse or child who was a U.S. citizen, meaning the program has had a significant impact in the Latino community.

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Secure Communities started in 2008 and has been greatly expanded by the Obama administration, to the consternation of pro-immigration advocates. The program is expected to be implemented nationwide by 2013.

Several states and municipalities have voiced concern about the program over the years -- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, tried to keep his state out of the program after opposition from immigration groups and a public petition put the program under scrutiny. Pro-immigration activists were outraged after New York and other states were told this summer they're required to participate.

Activists are still attempting to get Mr. Obama to alter or drop the policy. In conjunction with a PBS documentary called "Lost in Detention," the Latino advocacy group coordinated press conferences, protests and other actions in 10 cities this week to bring attention to the president's immigration policies and Secure Communities in particular.

"President Obama is leading, continuing and expanding a Bush-era program that racially profiles immigrants, especially Latinos, by the millions," said Lovato.

President Obama's approval rating has fallen over the course of his presidency, in large part because of the economy, but his support among Hispanics has fallen disproportionately, according to Gallup. In September of this year, Mr. Obama's approval rating among Hispanics stood at 49 percent, according to Gallup -- relatively low compared to past support, but still stronger than his overall approval rating of 41 percent.

Lovato points to a Latino Decisions poll showing that a majority of Hispanic Americans know an undocumented immigrant.

"A surefire way to lose a lot of Latino votes is to deport Latinos, and that's exactly what he's done," Lovato said.

"It doesn't mean that we're going to rush over and join Herman Cain as he builds an electric fence," he continued, predicting that Latinos will opt out of traditional politics in favor of local-level organizing and joining other disenchanted groups like the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters.

Latinos have made up an increasingly important voting bloc -- in 2010, 7 percent of voters were Hispanic, the highest percentage in a non-presidential election year since the Census began keeping track.

Latinos have traditionally voted Democratic, and the president's party is making exerted efforts to keep them on their side. Last week, for instance, the White House hosted an American Latino Heritage Forum to celebrate the contributions of American Latinos. In September, Mr. Obama sat down for a roundtable discussion hosted by Yahoo Espanol, MSN Latino, AOL Latino and Huffington Post Latino Voices.

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