By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008
A year after Prince William County launched a crackdown on illegal immigrants, Virginia has implemented a law that requires something similar for every jurisdiction in the state. Jail officials are now required to notify federal authorities of all foreign-born inmates regardless of their immigration status.
The little-noticed law went into effect July 1 and aims to make every corner of the state as unwelcoming as Prince William for illegal immigrants charged with crimes.
"With our new law, these people who are here illegally should be afraid of living anywhere in Virginia right now," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who helped write the law and chairs the state's crime commission. "If you're here illegally, it's not any scarier to live in Prince William than in any other county."
Prince William and about 60 other jurisdictions nationwide had previously joined in a separate partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to identify immigrants who have committed crimes. But now, under the Virginia law, officials across the state have begun routinely filing similar reports to the same federal authorities that Prince William does. Under the state law, local jails probably will spend a fraction of the $10.5 million Prince Willliam has budgeted over the next five years for the ICE partnership.
ICE cannot say how many illegal immigrants from a particular jurisdiction are being deported, only that it cannot remove as many as it would like because of budget limitations. So there are no statistics about what ultimately happens to the illegal immigrants who are reported to ICE -- either by way of the new state law or through the federal program, which trains local officers to identify and detain undocumented suspects charged with crimes.
ICE has $42 million for the partnership program this year, but officials at the agency say they need a lot more money to do the job. "We'd like to detain everyone. But that is a fantasy world," said James Pendergraph, who oversees ICE's partnerships with state and local agencies.
Together, the federal program and the state law, passed in the aftermath of Congress's failure last summer to reform the immigration system, underscore how dissimilar enforcement policies are in the Washington region.
While Virginia jails have begun expediting reports to ICE on their foreign-born inmates, even if there is no evidence that they are undocumented, the Montgomery County jail sends federal authorities a weekly list of its immigrant inmates.
"We do no investigation for ICE," said Montgomery Department of Correction and Rehabilitation Director Arthur M. Wallenstein. "We are not agents of the ICE. We are a local branch of government."
And while Prince William's police and sheriff's departments will spend about $1.5 million this fiscal year to employ 16 ICE-trained officers and deputies for the program known as 287(g), Alexandria and Arlington County are leaving most of the immigration work to the federal agency.
"It's a federal responsibility," Arlington Sheriff Beth Arthur said. "I mean, in essence what is happening is, these 287(g) localities are taking on the responsibility of ICE, doing its job. And these localities are paying for it." The 287(g) program got its name from the section of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act that authorized it.
But Prince William officials are confident that they will identify more illegal immigrants through their partnership with ICE than they would under the state law.
Only 60 of the thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide have joined the five-year-old ICE program. Many localities don't have the resources, Pendergraph said. Politics have also come into play: Some agencies got involved only after government leaders ordered them to do so.
Other local participants in the federal program are Herndon, Manassas, Manassas Park and, since early this month, Loudoun County. In Maryland, only Frederick County participates. The District has not signed on.
Fairfax County has applied to join the program, but Sheriff Stan Barry said last week that he might reconsider after he assesses the impact of the Virginia law.
"It may be that 287(g) is moot for us," he said. "One of the reasons we applied was to expedite identifying and processing illegal immigrants. But if we're going to end up with the very same results just by reporting [under the new law] and having ICE do the work, obviously there would be no reason to participate."
Under 287(g), a local officer is authorized to access an ICE database that contains fingerprints of known illegal immigrants. If the suspect is identified as undocumented, the officer is deputized to hold the inmate under a federal detainer.
In jails not in the federal program, officers typically have access to a separate ICE database that does not match fingerprints. These officers can follow up with ICE, which can investigate further. The most serious offenders are in jail anyway, so there is no rush to identify them. But many illegal immigrants charged with misdemeanors probably would be released on bond before being identified. ICE has not shown a willingness to deport many people charged with lesser crimes, experts said.
Prince William made national headlines last summer when it directed police officers to check the immigration status of all suspects, even before they were arrested. The policy left the county open to accusations of racial profiling, and many Hispanics, including legal residents, fled to jurisdictions they considered less hostile. In March, the Board of County Supervisors amended the policy to require immigration checks only after an arrest.
"Based on our interaction with ICE, I am pretty confident that our program is more intensive than what will evolve in those other jurisdictions," Prince William County Executive Craig S. Gerhart said.
Statistics the ICE provided to the Virginia State Crime Commission show that in fiscal 2007, law enforcement agencies in the state made 12,073 reports to the federal agency, which resulted in 694 detainers.
"I think that comes to about 5 percent," said the commission's executive director, James O. Towey. "Some of those people may not have been illegal aliens. But this stat shows you they do not have the resources" to detain many of the immigrants they identify.
The effectiveness of the Virginia law will depend largely on ICE, Towey said. "Whether ICE comes and gets them and ultimately deports them is a matter that is beyond our control," he said.
Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane is frustrated that ICE cannot tell him what has happened to the 800 suspected illegal immigrants his county has identified to the agency.
"We just want to know how the system works," he said. "We're spending resources to provide this information [to ICE], and we need to know what the results are."
Through various enforcement programs, ICE says it identified 164,296 illegal immigrants who served time in local jails in fiscal 2007, including 2,738 in the District, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
ICE officials said recently that they had no data on how many were deported, how many were released from custody and given summonses to appear before immigration judges and, of those, how many failed to show for hearings and simply disappeared.
ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said gathering those statistics will require "manual tabulation" that will take "some time."
Recognizing the unpopularity of 287(g), the agency is preparing to roll out what it calls a "sweeping new plan," dubbed Secure Communities, that will give all local agencies direct access to a database that contains information collected by ICE and the Department of Justice.
However, the multibillion-dollar program has not been fully funded by Congress, and even if it is, ICE still might not have enough money to detain all of the illegal immigrants it identifies, Pendergraph said.
"You know something? We're playing catch-up," he said. "Five years ago, immigration enforcement for state and local law enforcement [agencies] wasn't even on the radar scope. We didn't get in this mess overnight. And we're not going to get out of it overnight."