Prince William, Loudoun Officials Reviewing Federal Illegal Immigration Program

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Law enforcement agencies in two Northern Virginia suburbs are reviewing sweeping changes to a federal illegal immigration program before deciding whether to remain involved.

Officials with the Prince William County Police Department and the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office said they were reviewing planned changes in their immigration enforcement partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security, known as the 287(g) program.

Federal officials announced the revised agreements last month after a Government Accountability Office report in March said that the program was intended to address "serious crime . . . committed by removable aliens" but that a handful of partner agencies had overstepped their authority.

Those agencies told investigators that they had stopped illegal immigrants for some minor violations, such as speeding, carrying an open container of alcohol and urinating in public, "contrary to the objective of the program."

Among the major changes to the local agreements: Cases will be prioritized based on the severity of the suspected infraction, such as major drug offenses or violent crimes; a provision has been clarified stating that all agency personnel are bound by federal civil rights laws; and new penalties have been introduced for local agencies that fail to follow federal guidelines.

Under the program, local law enforcement officers are deputized to question suspects about whether they are in the country legally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the 66 participating agencies, which receive federal money, have until mid-October to accept the new terms or be dropped from the program.

In Northern Virginia, Prince William police, the Loudoun sheriff's office and police departments in Herndon, Manassas and Manassas Park are 287(g) member agencies. In Maryland, the Frederick County Sheriff's Office is part of the program.

Civil liberties groups and immigrant advocates said the program has caused some police officials to engage in racial profiling, conducting indiscriminate traffic stops or neighborhood sweeps aimed at Latinos and other ethnic groups.

Since July 2007, Prince William police have turned over about 1,600 suspected illegal immigrants held in county facilities. The county's Criminal Alien Unit, which was created after Prince William officials approved a number of countywide anti-illegal immigration measures, refers seven to 12 cases a month to ICE's Office of Investigations.

But Prince William officials have said that the county's separate and more stringent illegal immigration policy has, at times, overwhelmed federal officials. At one point last year, ICE discussed reducing its work with Prince William, saying it did not "have the capacity to operate in that manner with many jurisdictions," according to an interim report released Aug. 4 by Prince William police.

In Loudoun County, members of the sheriff's department and county attorney's office are reviewing the updated agreement to "sort out any potential issues," said Kraig Troxell, a sheriff's office spokesman.

This year, Loudoun sheriff's deputies have transferred 166 suspected illegal immigrants arrested on other local charges to ICE custody, with 43 others being held in the county jail on federal detainers. Last year, 135 suspects were sent to federal facilities.

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