Prince William Agrees to Rules on Immigration Enforcement

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors authorized the police chief Tuesday to enter into a new agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that will effectively give federal officials more authority over the local illegal immigration enforcement program.

The board's decision came three months after changes were made to the federal 287(g) illegal immigration program. The changes are meant to standardize the program after a U.S. Government Accountability Office report concluded that some of the agencies in the program had overstepped their authority.

All participating agencies were told to accept the new agreement by mid-October or be dropped from the program. Of the 79 agencies nationwide, 67 have signed the new agreement so far, including law enforcement officials in Manassas and Loudoun County.

"The i's haven't been dotted and the t's haven't been crossed, but we've sent it for final approval," Loudoun sheriff's spokesman Kraig Troxell said.

Prince William entered into the 287(g) program in 2007, revising its immigration policy last year so local police question the citizenship or immigration status of all people under physical arrest for a violation of a state or local law. Five officers and one supervisor are in the county's immigration enforcement unit.

"I'm convinced what we did on illegal immigration is probably one of the most popular things this board has done, at least while I've been on it," said board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large). "Unfortunately, we have to move on this or [lose] the program entirely."

Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said the new agreement generally gives more control to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when dealing only with immigration matters, something that does not happen often in the county.

"In Prince William, the criminal alien unit focuses primarily on individuals who lack legal status and commit crimes," Deane said. "We don't routinely arrest solely on immigration status."

Under the new agreement, immigration cases will be prioritized based on severity, with the focus on major drug offenses and violent crimes.

The new agreement adds a provision that says all local agency personnel are bound by federal civil rights laws and puts penalties in place for agencies that fail to follow the agreement. It requires ICE to do background checks on all Prince William police officers participating in the immigration enforcement unit.

The new agreement also could place a greater financial burden on the county. But Deane said that isn't the case, at least for now. ICE will continue to pay for aspects of the program including training costs and computer equipment until its funding runs out. After that, the burden will shift to the county, and the program will need to be readdressed, he said.

"Overall, I don't think these changes will significantly impact how we operate," Deane said. "We have been working with ICE to come up with an agreement we think is acceptable."

Col. Peter A. Meletis, the superintendent of the Prince William-Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center, said the jail board has signed off on its new partnership with Homeland Security.

Under the new agreement, the actions taken against "level one," or the most serious, offenders will not change. The jail will put a detainer on inmates in the country illegally, and once they finish their sentence, ICE will pick them up. From when the jail began its agreement with ICE in July 2007 through this September, it has put detainers on 2,041 people, transferring 1,923 of them to ICE, Meletis said.

People who commit less serious crimes, including larceny, burglary and fraud, and have never come in contact with ICE before, will "most likely" be released after serving their sentence and will have a federal court date, Meletis said, adding that ICE will, however, hold them if resources are available.

Meletis said the new process differs only slightly. Previously, ICE picked up those who committed less serious crimes and transported them to its Fairfax County facility and "possibly" released them from there before a hearing, he said.

Now, Meletis said, they will be released from the local jail and will probably have a court hearing.

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