D.C. area jurisdictions begin immigration checks on inmates

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Eight law enforcement agencies in Virginia and Maryland have recently joined a sweeping federal program that aims to identify and deport illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes.

The agencies join about 150 other jurisdictions in 19 states as part of a program the Obama administration hopes will be in all 3,100 local jails nationwide by 2013.

The Secure Communities program, part of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement effort to streamline how it identifies and removes criminal illegal immigrants, allows local law enforcement officers to check fingerprints against the FBI criminal database and the Department of Homeland Security's biometric database. Officials hope that the system will more efficiently prevent serious criminals from being released back onto the streets.

Arlington, Fauquier, Loudoun and Stafford counties, along with the City of Alexandria, are the most recent additions to the program, ICE officials announced last week. They join Prince William and Fairfax counties in Virginia. A week earlier, officials announced that Frederick, St. Mary's and Queen Anne's counties in Maryland had joined the effort, which was underway in Prince George's County. ICE officials said this week that they are working with the District to deploy the program as well.

"Secure Communities is a great tool in helping us to enforce the law and send a message that there is a cost to coming into the country illegally," Neil H. MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement. "In most cases, we are targeting those with a criminal background. We are taking them off the streets and out of our communities, and we are potentially deterring them from returning to the United States and committing further crimes."

The new process automatically alerts federal officials when illegal immigrants are arrested and their fingerprints are compared to those in the databases, allowing the Department of Homeland Security to review the case and determine whether deportation is a priority. The Obama administration has said it wants to focus on illegal immigrants who commit serious or violent crimes.

Although advocates for immigrants fear the program could lead police to preemptively arrest people to check their immigration status, federal authorities say Secure Communities targets illegal immigrants who commit crimes and would have been arrested for them in any case. Fairfax Sheriff Stan G. Barry (D), who administered a year-long pilot of the program, praised its ability to help identify threats to the community and have them removed.

Likewise, Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson (I) believes the program will help his county.

"Secure Communities will only improve our local efforts in removing criminal aliens from the country who are involved in gang activity and other serious crimes in our community," Simpson said in a news release.

According to ICE, since the program was implemented in October 2008, more than 18,800 illegal immigrants charged with crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping have been identified. More than 4,000 of those people have been removed from the country.

ICE officials hope to continue to expand the program's reach and expect it to be a nationwide resource by the end of 2013.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company