Fairfax Jail Will Check For Illegal Immigrants

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fairfax County Sheriff Stan G. Barry, who runs Virginia's largest jail, has decided to begin screening inmates for immigration violations and working with federal authorities to deport those illegally in this country.

Fairfax officials have resisted involving their police force in immigration enforcement but said they have no problem with Barry's initiative because his deputies will be screening people who have already been arrested.

"I think if you break the law, and you're already here illegally, you are not welcome in this county," Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said. "I think we have to be strict about that."

The partnership with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will give Fairfax deputies instant access to federal immigration databases. It also will allow the sheriff's office to schedule deportation hearings for suspected illegal immigrants and give deputies the authority to set "immigration bonds" that must be paid in full -- in cash -- before inmates are released.

"We're not going to go out actively looking for people," said Barry (D). "We're targeting people that are not obeying the rules of society."

Of the 27,000 people who were housed in the Fairfax jail last year, Barry estimated that 4,300, or 16 percent, were suspected of being here illegally.

Advocates for Virginia immigrants have criticized the use of local police to enforce federal immigration law but are less critical when immigration checks are performed in jails. Deputies will undergo special training on screening inmates.

Virginia legislators will consider a measure next year to require jails to do immigration status screening. A coalition of immigrant groups is seeking to limit the screening to jails, and only after a conviction.

"Fairfax County has been a leader in trying to maintain the trust of the immigrant community," said Tim Freilich, legal director of the Virginia Justice Center. "We hope that any . . . agreement that is entered into by Fairfax County will protect the confidentiality of immigration status of all victims and witnesses and that there will be close tracking of racial and ethnic data of the people screened."

Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer said he generally supports the sheriff's initiative, though he has concerns about whether the immigrant community will feel comfortable reporting crime. "I want victims and witnesses to feel free to contact police," Rohrer said, "and not be afraid that the first question is going to be, 'What is your status?' "

In the spring, Barry traveled to Charlotte to study the program in the Mecklenburg County jail. Sheriff Jim Pendergraph implemented the federal program last year, and in less than 18 months the jail has placed 2,839 people into deportation proceedings, said Sgt. Daniel Stitt of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office

"The citizens love it," said Pendergraph, who announced this week that he is leaving Charlotte to become ICE's top liaison between federal and local police and sheriffs on immigration matters.

Thirty-three local agencies across the country, mostly in county jails, have formed such partnerships with ICE, spokesman Richard Rocha said, and 70 local agencies have pending requests. He said 26,000 people have been identified by local agencies for possible deportation in the last two years.

The program does not allow local authorities to make immigration arrests unless a federal immigration detainer has already been issued.

When defendants are booked into the jail, they will be questioned about their nationality and citizenship. If a person cannot show that he or she is in this country legally, a deputy will enter the person into the federal system and schedule a deportation hearing. When the county charge is resolved, or bond is posted, the person is released. He or she then must prove legal status at the deportation hearing, or a detainer is entered, setting the stage for deportation.

If a deputy determines that the person has no ties to the area and has a criminal history, a second, cash-only immigration bond is set to ensure appearance at the deportation hearing. Experts said this was not unusual in the federal immigration process. In Charlotte, "everybody gets an immigration bond," Stitt said. "There's nobody on release anymore."

Barry said the program should save Fairfax money by relieving police of repeatedly arresting some violators for petty offenses and by deporting convicted criminals. It also will provide an incentive for those here illegally not to get arrested, he said.

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