Database Is Tool in Deporting Fugitives

Brenda Cruz with sons Lester and Hugo Hernandez at their Hyattsville home. The boys' father, Hugo Vinicio Hernandez, was deported to Guatemala.
Brenda Cruz with sons Lester and Hugo Hernandez at their Hyattsville home. The boys' father, Hugo Vinicio Hernandez, was deported to Guatemala. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hugo Vinicio Hernandez knew that immigration agents could detain him at any time for having disregarded a deportation order in 2001. But the Guatemalan man didn't think he would wind up in the custody of immigration agents as a result of a routine traffic stop.

He was deported after being pulled over by a Takoma Park police officer in January.

It's a fate that a growing number of illegal immigrants are facing as federal officials add hundreds of thousands of names of people with outstanding deportation orders into the FBI-run National Crime Information Center database, which police officers use to search for warrants.

In Montgomery County, about 60 people have been taken into custody by police officers on immigration warrants since last year. Officers elsewhere in the region, including jurisdictions with large immigrant populations such as the District and Fairfax and Prince William counties, said that they also enforce civil immigration warrants.

Although the numbers are relatively low, they are expected to increase regionally and nationally as more records are uploaded, which concerns immigrant advocates and some local police officials.

"It's very important for the local police department to develop strong relationships with the community," said Montgomery police Chief J. Thomas Manger, who has made reaching out to recent immigrants a priority. "That trust is being jeopardized."

Supporters of the effort say that enlisting the help of police officers to identify and remove the roughly 600,000 immigrants who are thought to have outstanding deportation orders is long overdue.

But two police associations have lobbied against the inclusion, saying that by acting on the warrants, departments risk alienating recent immigrants, a segment of the community that has historically had an uneasy relationship with law enforcement agencies. That, they say, is likely to hinder cooperation from witnesses and victims of violent crimes who are in the country unlawfully.

Separately, immigrant advocacy organizations are suing the government, saying that it had no legal standing to add administrative records to what has traditionally been a database for criminal warrants. Disregarding a deportation order is a violation of administrative, not criminal, law.

Because many outstanding deportation orders date back several years and in some cases don't reflect the person's current immigration status, some law enforcement officials and immigrant advocates say they fear that people could get picked up because of sloppy record keeping. The problem is compounded because some immigrants are ordered deported in hearings that can be held in their absence. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it screens records carefully before adding them to the database.

Since the government began adding immigration warrants to the database in 2002, authorities have identified more than 25,000 fugitives, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The database "is an effective force multiplier that leverages the resources of law enforcement officers throughout the United States who, in the course of their daily duties, encounter criminal and fugitive aliens wanted by" the agency, said Michael Keegan, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman.

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