A recent report from Charleston County South Carolina is a helpful reminder that common sense immigration enforcement policies can significantly decrease the number of dangerous people present in a community. Police there recently began using 287 (g) to check prisoners for their immigration status. Illegals so identified are then deported at the end of their sentences â€” how reasonable.
546 â€?criminal aliensâ€™ flagged, Charleston Post and Courier, December 12, 2010
Charleston County detention officers have flagged hundreds of illegal aliens for deportation since they began screening the immigration status of inmates this year as part of a federal program.
Seventeen detention officers and supervisors at the county jail are authorized to enforce immigration law after completing four weeks of training by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. That allows them to directly tap into Department of Homeland Security computers to screen foreign-born offenders arrested for state and local crimes.
Between June and Nov. 30, officers have flagged 546 â€?criminal aliensâ€? for deportation, said Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas, the jailâ€™s administrator. If the program had been in place all year, that number likely would have approached 1,700 people, he said.
These offenders come from around the globe, though most are from Mexico and Central America, officials said. U.S. Census estimates place the number of Hispanics living in Charleston County at about 12,500 people, or about 4 percent of the population. But many local officials think the actual number is much higher.
Authorities hail the program as a way to rid the county of undocumented criminals, but some worry it will chill law enforcement efforts to build trust and cooperation with the Hispanic community.
Lucas said sheriffâ€™s officials have met with Hispanic residents to explain the program, which is focused only on immigrants who already have been arrested for crimes. Most of the Latinos they spoke with support the program, he said.
â€?We are not knocking down doors looking for illegal immigrants,â€? he said. â€?If you are a law-abiding citizen, we wonâ€™t even see you.â€?
Still, Diana Salazar, president of the Latino Association of Charleston, said her phone has been ringing off the hook for weeks with calls from Hispanics upset or fearful of the program. Salazar said area police are using safety checkpoints and questionable traffic stops to haul in undocumented workers on petty offenses and get them deported.
â€?Itâ€™s terrible. People are scared,â€? she said. â€?These are just innocent people who are in this country trying to work and contribute to our society.â€?
Barbara Gonzalez, a regional ICE spokeswoman, said the agency does not tolerate racial profiling and that it can pull its memorandum of agreement with an agency if that is discovered. But there is no indication that is occurring here, she said.
The local program has flagged illegals charged with rape, robbery and other serious crimes, Gonzalez said.
A man recently arrested on child pornography charges, for instance, was flagged for deportation as a direct result of the program, ICE deportation officer Kevin Thompson said. â€?We might never have caught that before,â€? he said. â€?This is a tremendous tool.â€?
Still, officials acknowledged that a good number of the offenders flagged locally were arrested for traffic violations such as failing to have a driverâ€™s license or car insurance. In addition to checking though Homeland Security and FBI databases, detention officers question these inmates about their place of birth, nationality and how they came to be in the United States. The offenders are asked to present documentation, and officers are trained to spot bogus green cards, drivers licenses and IDs, detention Sgt. Denise Brown said. Some fakes are laughable; others are quite good, she said.
The Charleston County jail is the only one in the state currently conducting the immigration checks, Gonzalez said.
York and Beaufort county officers also have gone through ICE training, but they are involved in task force operations targeting illegal immigrants and gangs in communities, among other things, she said. Charleston County is not participating in those task force efforts.
Nationally, more than 1,200 officers in 26 states have been trained through the 287(g) program, named after the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act from which it gains its authorization. More than 172,000 aliens have been removed from the country as a result of the program since January 2006, according to the agency.
The sheriffâ€™s office already was working closely with immigration enforcement agents to identify and deport offenders. The problem was: there werenâ€™t enough agents locally to have a federal presence at the jail around the clock, and detention officers werenâ€™t allowed to conduct immigration checks on their own. That caused delays and, on occasions, allowed some illegal aliens to slip through the cracks, officials said.
The new system provides that â€?24-7 presence.â€? ICE agents still supervise the program and review the screenings of detention officers. To date, though, they have not found a single mistake by the locals, Thompson said.
Roughly 5.5 percent of the 31,000 bookings at the Charleston County jail this year have been referred to ICE for deportation or prosecution, Lucas said.
Once flagged as an ICE case, a hold is placed on the offender, keeping them from posting bail and disappearing, officials said.
Salazar said this has deprived some families of their breadwinner, and kept mothers from their children. In some cases, their only offense is having a blown tail light, she said.
Local attorney Michael Uricchio said the approach is just one step away from Arizonaâ€™s controversial law, which would require police officers enforcing other laws to question the immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally. â€?It is already having a chilling effect on the Hispanic community, he said.
Uricchio said he recently had a Hispanic client who was getting ready to surrender to police on a sexual assault warrant. But when the man learned about the immigration check from an interpreter, he took off, Uricchio said.
Supporters of the program say critics are losing sight of the fact that these offenders are in the country illegally and have been arrested for crimes. They are afforded due process and neither ICE nor the jail passes final judgment on their status, they said.
All of those flagged for deportation get a chance to plead their cases before a federal immigration judge, usually at proceedings in Atlanta, Gonzalez said. Those who choose to leave voluntarily can be shipped home to their native country in as little as a weekâ€™s time if no criminal charges are pending. Those found guilty of crimes must serve their sentences before being deported, she said.
â€?Criminal charges are first and foremost,â€? she said. â€?If people are convicted by the court system, they must pay their debt to society.â€?
Those caught re-entering the country illegally can face prosecution and the possibility of 20 years behind bars, Gonzalez said.
â€?The end game here is simple,â€? she said. â€?Itâ€™s to keep the community safe.â€?