U.S. Immigration Agency Picks Up 60-Plus Detainees

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More than 60 suspected illegal immigrants detained at the Prince William County jail have been picked up by federal immigration authorities since Friday, officials said yesterday.

The transfers follow complaints by county officials that crowding at the jail had hit an all-time high because federal immigration officials were taking weeks, not the agreed-upon 72 hours, to pick up suspected illegal immigrants. The facility was spending $220,000 a month to house inmates elsewhere in the state, officials said.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week, asking that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expedite the transfers.

Col. Peter A. Meletis, the jail superintendent, said that local officials met with ICE representatives last week and that federal officials pledged to speed up the process. ICE also established a designated day for retrieving inmates, he said.

"They decided to try and rectify the problem," Meletis said yesterday. "We are cooperating and working with each other to solve it."

Prince William has detained more than 650 people since July, when the county began residency checks of arrestees who are suspected of being in the country illegally. ICE agents are supposed to retrieve suspected illegal immigrants from the jail within 72 hours of their release from county custody.

County officials have said that jail employees with immigration training are working 60 hours a week and that the already-crowded jail is spending $3 million a year on additional transportation and processing costs.

ICE officials have said they were unprepared for the influx of detainees.

At a Board of County Supervisors meeting this month, Mark X. McGraw, deputy special agent in charge of ICE's Washington field office, said: "We've gotten ahead of ourselves. We never expected that to happen as fast as it did."

Prince William jail facilities, which have space for 402 inmates, held an average of 664 inmates a day in February. An additional 275 were sent elsewhere in the state at a daily cost of $38 to $50 an inmate.

That unanticipated expense comes as the county struggles to cover a budget shortfall and pay for the rising cost of immigration enforcement by its police department.

A county police policy implemented last month directs officers to check a suspect's residency, no matter how minor the infraction, if they think the person is in the country illegally.

Under the partnership with ICE, known as a 287(g), jurisdictions can deputize local law enforcement officials to assist ICE in processing illegal immigrants. The local officers investigate arrestees who they think are illegal immigrants, working with the federal agency to increase arrests and expedite deportation.

Since 2005, the number of state and local agencies participating in 287(g) nationwide has increased from four to 47, including the Prince William jail and the police departments in Prince William, Manassas and Herndon.

Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said he is pleased with ICE's response.

"To their credit, ICE stepped up to the plate to address the problem," he said. "We understand they have capacity restraints themselves. We are pleased they have moved to eliminate the backlog of prisoners."

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