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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.

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

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.

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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.

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