Montgomery Steps Up Reporting in ICE Efforts

County Defends Plan To Flag All Suspects Of Violent Crimes

Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; Page B01

Montgomery County police will soon start telling federal immigration authorities the names of all suspects they arrest for violent crimes and handgun violations, an approach that reflects growing concerns about illegal immigration and crime but stops short of the broader enforcement efforts used in some counties.

The new policy, expected to be made public today, represents a compromise that could limit its effectiveness, but county leaders say it is key to maintaining the trust and confidence of Montgomery's 277,000 foreign-born residents.

"I believe this approach is balanced and realistic for our highly diverse community of nearly one million residents," Leggett wrote in a memo this week to his police chief, J. Thomas Manger.

Elsewhere in the Washington region, Frederick County and several agencies in Northern Virginia deputize officers to act as immigration agents, questioning suspects about whether they are in the country legally. They also turn over the names of illegal immigrants arrested for any crime, not just violent offenses.

"We're not getting into the immigration investigation business," Manger said yesterday.

Still, the policy marks a shift in a county that has prided itself on its liberal, tolerant leanings. And some Latino advocates remain concerned that any step toward immigration enforcement could entrap people who might not be guilty of local offenses, leading to deportations that could break up families.

Across the country, police are grappling with how to cooperate with federal immigration agents without scaring off crucial witnesses who may have immigration status issues but whose help is crucial to public safety. Reflecting that challenge, local police agencies handle immigration matters differently when it comes to those under arrest.

Just as some counties are more aggressive than Montgomery, other jurisdictions are less aggressive: The District and Prince George's County discourage police officers from asking about immigration status.

Currently, officers in Montgomery routinely check to see whether people they detain have outstanding warrants, a broad search that can turn up immigration warrants. Officials at the county jail fax a list of foreign-born inmates to ICE once a week, and ICE has the authority to run the names through databases to check for expired visas and other violations.

The checks do not detect those who have entered the country illegally and have had no contact with authorities.

Manger began reevaluating the policy last year, when undocumented immigrants were linked to at least two high-profile killings, including the Nov. 1 slaying of an honor student on a county transit bus. By late last month, federal authorities had lodged immigration detainers against eight of 18 people held in the county jail on murder charges, meaning they might seek to deport those suspects after their criminal cases run their course. The detainers do not necessarily mean the suspects are in the country illegally.

The thinking behind Manger's proposal was that if dangerous people are arrested and officers could use their immigration status to get them off the streets, it was worth moving in that direction.

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