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

By N.C. Aizenman
Monday, February 22, 2010; B01

For nearly a year, Fairfax County's Adult Detention Center has quietly helped pilot a far-reaching program designed to identify criminal illegal immigrants and assist the federal government in removing them from the United States.

Although controversy over civil liberties issues has surrounded similar efforts, the Fairfax program, Secure Communities, has had a lower profile. It automatically checks the digital fingerprints of anyone processed at the jail against immigration databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. If someone is found to be an illegal immigrant whom officials want to deport, an officer of DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, calls the jail's booking desk within an hour to place a "detainer" on the person.

Fairfax, which will mark the one-year anniversary of its enrollment next month, was among the first of only 116 jurisdictions nationwide to participate. Prince William County, the District and Prince George's County, which enrolled more recently, are the only other Washington area jurisdictions to sign up. The Obama administration plans to expand the program, which costs about $200 million a year, to all 3,100 local jails nationwide by 2013.

In Fairfax, 619 inmates were targeted for removal in 2009 because of the program. About 474 illegal immigrant inmates were identified by other means, for a total of 1,093 -- a 40 percent increase from 2008, even though the jail's population shrank slightly.

About a third have been deported. The rest are in immigration proceedings or serving their sentences.

ICE officials said it's difficult to attribute all of the increase to Secure Communities. If the program hadn't been in place, they said, they might have mounted other equally effective efforts in the jail.

But Fairfax Sheriff Stan G. Barry, who runs the detention center, gave the program high marks. "It's been absolutely fantastic," he said. "We've been able to identify a lot more individuals who are threats to our community and have them removed."

Officials point to the Fairfax police arrest March 27 of a Belgian man accused of solicitation of prostitution. The Secure Communities check revealed that he was in the country illegally, had encountered local police more than a dozen times under various aliases and had been convicted of crimes that ranged from assault to attempted armed robbery.

It's possible that the man might have been caught even if Fairfax didn't use Secure Communities. Since July 2008, the Virginia legislature has required jail officials to notify immigration authorities of any foreign nationals in their custody.

However, inmates can lie about their citizenship. And in the past, during periods when many inmates were brought through the jail at once, sheriff's deputies often lacked the time and training to take a closer look, Barry said.

"It involved a lot of guesswork," he said. When deputies did call ICE, there was no way to ensure that ICE agents followed up.

The immigration databases that the Secure Communities program taps are not infallible. They list only foreigners who entered the United States on a visa or who were caught trying to sneak in but later released. Those who have never crossed paths with immigration authorities are not singled out -- the same as U.S.-born citizens. But ICE officials can investigate further.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company