Prince William Regional Jail Steps Up Immigration Screening

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Prince William regional jail officials have joined a federal system to tighten their screening of inmates' immigration status and potentially deport those in the United States illegally.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Secure Communities initiative provides jurisdictions across the nation access to more comprehensive federal records, ICE officials said.

"Secure Communities is a Department of Homeland Security initiative to more broadly manage and modernize the processes used to identify and ultimately remove dangerous criminal aliens from our communities," said Marc Rapp, acting executive director of Secure Communities. "Our goal with this effort is to use information sharing to prevent criminal aliens from being released back into the community, with little or no additional burden on our local law enforcement partners."

Under Secure Communities, the Prince William-Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center can access Homeland Security's biometrics-based immigration records. Previously, the jail accessed only the FBI's criminal records during booking as part of what is known as the 287(g) program.

Col. Peter A. Meletis, the jail's superintendent, said that officials launched the program locally last week and that it does not cost the 12 state and local law enforcement agencies that use the jail anything. Booking officials at the jail simply run the fingerprints of an arrestee simultaneously through the FBI and Homeland Security systems; one largely identifies a person's criminal activity, and the other better identifies immigration status.

If fingerprints match a set found in the Homeland Security system, ICE will be immediately notified. ICE officials said they will then evaluate each case and take "appropriate action" after offenders complete their sentence.

"With the 287(g) program, we have most of our bases covered, but this will give us an additional tool," Meletis said. "This system will help us catch anyone who gets by the first system."

From when the jail began its agreement with ICE in July 2007 through this August, it issued 1,964 detainers and transferred 1,870 people to ICE, Meletis said. Detainers allow jails to hold people suspected of immigration violations until ICE can pick them up. The jail typically processes 1,000 to 1,100 arrests a month.

Meletis said Secure Communities will allow the jail to catch an additional "handful" of illegal immigrants, especially since jail officials can now access visa information.

ICE officials said the agency launched the first Secure Communities program in Houston last October and has expanded it to 80 jurisdictions, with Fairfax and Prince William counties the only two in Virginia.

ICE officials said they first are deploying the program to areas with the highest concentrations of what they deem the most dangerous illegal immigrants, then expanding to nearly 30,000 local jails and booking facilities by 2013. Congress has appropriated $1.4 billion to ICE for enforcement efforts against illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

Fairfax, which doesn't participate in the 287 (g) program, joined Secure Communities in March. The Fairfax County Adult Detention Center has 237 ICE detainers, Fairfax sheriff's office spokesman Basilio "Sonny" Cachuela said, noting that doesn't necessarily mean the detainees are illegal. Eight people without charges are also waiting to be picked up by ICE.

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