Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of today's Washington Post, incorrectly said a program that checks the immigration status of local jail inmates was already underway in Los Angeles. The program will be launched in that city later this year.

U.S. to Check Immigration Status of People in Local Jails

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Obama administration is expanding a program initiated by President George W. Bush aimed at checking the immigration status of virtually every person booked into local jails. In four years, the measure could result in a tenfold increase in illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes and identified for deportation, current and former U.S. officials said.

By matching inmates' fingerprints to federal immigration databases, authorities hope to pinpoint deportable illegal immigrants before they are released from custody. Inmates in federal and state prisons already are screened. But authorities generally lack the time and staff to do the same at local jails, which house up to twice as many illegal immigrants at any time and where inmates come and go more quickly.

The effort is likely to significantly reshape immigration enforcement, current and former executive branch officials said. It comes as the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress vow to crack down on illegal immigrants who commit crimes, rather than those who otherwise abide by the law.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made it "very clear" that her top priority is deporting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, said David J. Venturella, program director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We mean this, we're serious about it, and we believe we need to put in an all-out effort to get this done," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security. He has led calls to remove illegal immigrants convicted of crimes after their sentences are served.

The program began as a pilot effort in October and operates in 48 counties across the country, including Fairfax County. This year, fingerprints from 1 million local jail bookings will be screened under the program. It also operates Dallas, Houston, Miami, Boston and Phoenix, according to ICE, and will expand to Los Angeles this year and nearly all local jails by the end of 2012.

The effort differs from programs in several Northern Virginia counties where local law enforcement officers have been deputized to question suspects about whether they are in the country legally. In Montgomery County, police provide immigration authorities the names of those arrested on charges of violent crimes and handgun violations.

Under the new program, the immigration checks will be automatic: Fingerprints currently being run through the FBI's criminal history database also will be matched against immigration databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. The effort would not catch people who have never been fingerprinted by U.S. authorities.

Based on the pilot program, the agency estimates that if fingerprints from all 14 million bookings in local jails each year were screened, about 1.4 million "criminal aliens" would be found, Venturella said. That would be about 10 times the 117,000 criminal illegal immigrants ICE deported last year. There are more than 3,100 local jails nationwide, compared with about 1,200 federal and state prisons.

The program, known as Secure Communities, "presents an historic opportunity to transform immigration enforcement," said Julie Myers Wood, who launched it last year while head of ICE.

In his proposed 2010 budget, President Obama asked Congress last week for $200 million for the program, a 30 percent increase that puts it on track to receive $1.1 billion by 2013.

The program could help answer for the first time a question that has been intertwined with debates over immigration policy: How many illegal immigrants in the United States are convicted of non-immigration crimes?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company