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Program that IDs jailed illegal immigrants sought for deportation gets high marks

Fairfax County marks its first year among 116 jurisdictions nationwide to pilot Secure Communities, which uses a database to flag criminal illegal immigrants.

Secure Communities gives federal officials full control over which illegal immigrants are deported. The Obama administration has announced that its priority is to remove those guilty of violent or serious crimes. (Being in the country illegally is a civil violation, not a criminal offense.)

By contrast, under a similar but more controversial program known as 287g, after the legal provision that created it, local jail officials are trained and deputized to determine which inmates are illegal immigrants and to decide whether to pursue deportation. Immigrant advocates worry that this offers local officials who might be prejudiced against immigrants a way to target them.

In Frederick County, one of a handful of Washington area jurisdictions that participate in 287g, Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins said his policy is to target every inmate identified as an illegal immigrant for deportation.

That has amounted to 605 inmates since the jail enrolled in 287g in April 2008, Jenkins said, about 9 percent of the total jail population. Jenkins said that deporting even low-level offenders is beneficial.

"One of the first persons we processed [for deportation] was driving under the influence of alcohol through a school zone during school hours at 30 miles over the speed limit," Jenkins said. "Is he any less of a threat to the community than a [top-level] offender? I would argue no."

Barry said he supports leaving discretion with federal authorities. "In an ideal world of unlimited resources, should we deport everyone who committed an offense? Sure. But we can't deport everyone," he said.

To Barry, who was considering enrolling in 287g when federal officials approached him about Secure Communities, perhaps the strongest argument is financial.

A smaller facility such as Frederick County's detention center can conduct immigration investigations during its regular duties. But Barry estimated that using 287g would have required him to dedicate eight to 15 people at an annual cost of as much as $3 million. Secure Communities is funded entirely by the federal government.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors limits on immigration, said the automated nature of Secure Communities also can help insulate local officials from allegations that they are singling out immigrants through racial profiling -- a concern that has dogged the 287g program.

"There's no judgment call, no decision to make, like: 'Is that a foreign name? Do I run it?' " Vaughan said.

Advocates for immigrants aren't so sure. "We fear that police will be doing preemptive arrests to get people who they suspect of being immigrants into the jail system so that they will be checked through the Secure Communities program," said Michele Waslin, senior policy analyst at the Immigration Policy Center.

Statistics from ICE suggest that agents pursue deportation of more than half of all eligible people who have committed serious crimes, compared with as few as a fifth of lower-level offenders. The trend is comparable in Fairfax.

However, the figures are imprecise. And the bulk of the 40,000 people who have been targeted for deportation under Secure Communities since the program's inception in October 2008 are lower-level offenders. This is mainly because so many low-level offenders go through the system, said ICE spokesman Richard Rocha.

During a recent afternoon at the Fairfax jail, officials appeared to show restraint. A 29-year-old man with bleary eyes and dirty clothing who was brought in for public drunkenness at a gas station spoke only Spanish. His offense was a misdemeanor for which fingerprints are not taken at the jail, so no automated check of his nationality or immigration status was conducted.

A few minutes later, police officers escorted in a Moroccan-born man on a more serious charge: stealing merchandise off the loading dock at a nearby Macy's. Deputy Sheriff Donald Fuller took his fingerprints on an electronic scanner connected to a computer, then clicked the button that would check them against the databases.

In this instance, the man turned out to be a legal permanent resident. ICE officials said they would monitor the case in the event he is convicted of a charge that cancels his legal status.

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