By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Two suburban Maryland law enforcement chiefs testifying before Congress yesterday gave dramatically different assessments of a controversial federal program that deputizes local officers to enforce immigration law.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger warned members of the House Committee on Homeland Security that the program could severely undermine trust between police and immigrant communities.
"Public safety increases when people have trust and confidence in local police forces," Manger said. "The bottom line is local law enforcement needs to work closely with our immigration authorities, but we cannot do their job for them."
But Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County characterized his force's participation in the program as "an overwhelming success."
Known as 287(g) for the section of immigration law that authorizes it, the program has garnered more than $114 million in funds since its launch four years ago and has trained 951 officers in 67 state and local agencies on how to determine a person's immigration status.
Jenkins said the four weeks of training provided to 52 of his county's sheriff employees and corrections officers last year had enabled them to identify 337 illegal immigrants -- 309 of whom were put into removal proceedings by immigration authorities.
Jenkins told the panel that nine of those arrested were members of the "notoriously violent gangs MS-13 and 18th Street" and that others were picked up for such crimes as attempted second-degree murder, second-degree rape, armed robbery, first-degree assault, child abuse and burglary.
"I would urge every law enforcement executive . . . to request participation" in the program, Jenkins said. He added that doing so was essential to combating "the enormous increase in crime throughout the United States . . . which can be tied directly to the unchecked flow of illegal immigrants through our southern border with Mexico." Later, he added, "We are dying on American soil, and there is a role for enforcement of immigration laws by local law enforcement."
Although some lawmakers on the panel praised Jenkins, others noted that a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday found that the government had failed to provide sufficient oversight to ensure its state and local partners were focusing on the dangerous criminals the program was intended to target rather than those guilty of minor violations.
Advocates for CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group that recently obtained information on 85 percent of the illegal immigrants identified by Frederick officials, contend that more than half were stopped for driving without a license and that only 20 were charged with felonies.
Lawmakers did not ask Jenkins for a breakdown of the severity of offenses in his most recent arrest figures. However, they did press him about the profit the county makes on room and board fees while holding illegal immigrants awaiting pickup by immigration authorities. Jenkins answered that though the actual cost to the county is only $7 per day, the county charges the federal government $83 per day to house illegal immigrants arrested for offenses that would otherwise warrant their release.