New Jail Program Targets Illegal Immigrants

New jail program targets illegal immigrants

By Julie Johnson
The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), March 2, 2010

Sonoma County this week will become the first in the Bay Area in which anyone booked into the county jail automatically will have their immigration status checked.

Under the program announced Tuesday by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the fingerprints of those arrested will be electronically sent to the Department of Homeland Security for comparison with more than 100 million fingerprint records. Those with immigration records will be flagged for review by ICE agents.

Critics of the Secure Communities program, which starts Friday in Sonoma County, say it pulls local law enforcement agencies closer into the federal government's immigration enforcement role.

ICE and Sonoma County sheriff's officials described the new program as an added tool to get repeat immigrant offenders off the street and out of the country.

This is a common-sense approach: Everyone who gets arrested gets checked for immigration status, Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey said. In this case, they're already in the system for entering into the country illegally or for having a record.

Previously, ICE staff visited local jails about three times a week and checked booking records for inmates identified as foreign nationals, said Craig Meyer, assistant field office director for ICE detention and removal operations in San Francisco.

The new program will increase the number of people flagged to immigration authorities, although officials don't yet know by how much, he said.

We'll have to make a choice on which cases we pursue, Meyer said. Obviously. we want to get the worst of the worst off the street.

Since its start in late 2008, the program has identified more than 16,000 immigrants in 16 states charged with felonies, such as murder, rape and kidnapping, ICE reported. Of those, 3,400 were deported.

Ten California counties now participate in the program: Sacramento, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Diego, Imperial, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Solano, San Joaquin and Stanislaus. ICE officials expect the program to be used nationwide by 2013.

Counties with higher populations of undocumented immigrant criminals were the first to participate in the program, said Virginia Kice, ICE spokeswoman.

Critics say the program puts local law enforcement into a closer relationship with federal immigration enforcement.

We're trying to accomplish the opposite, to have our county employees less involved with ICE, said Richard Coshnear, an immigration attorney and member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County.

I think we'll start seeing more and more people arrested for petty charges and being set up for deportation, he said.

The program puts undue pressure on sheriff's offices, which must house people on immigration holds, said Arturo Venegas, who retired as Sacramento police chief in 2003 and now runs the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a group aimed at adding a law enforcement perspective to the immigration debate.

Who pays the bill? Venegas said.

The county, for the most part, sheriff's officials say.

ICE officers must pick up an inmate detained on an immigration hold within 72 hours of an arrest, said Linda Savoy, Sonoma County's assistant sheriff in charge of the jails.

The county is only reimbursed for immigration holds if the inmate stays more than four days and is convicted of a crime, said Dennis Jaques, a Sheriff's Office administrative services officer.

The federal government reimbursed the Sheriff's Office about $1.1 million for housing inmates on immigration holds for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, Jaques said.

It doesn't meet the cost of housing, I know that, he said.

Savoy said she doesn't expect to see a jump in inmates because ICE has been ramping up its efforts to track and detain people illegally in the U.S. for years.

Savoy said 966 people were released into ICE custody in 2009, and the numbers have been rising by the hundreds each year. Only 153 inmates were sent to ICE in 2004, she said.

The program could reduce jail population if judges use information on a person's immigration status in sentencing decisions, McCaffrey said. For example, a judge may waive time for minor crimes and release the inmate to ICE custody, he said.

There are individuals in the country illegally and they're re-offending, he said. Now, they're not going to be re-offending in Sonoma County.

Meanwhile, a U.S. district judge today will hold a hearing in Oakland on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Northern California that accuses the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office of acting beyond its authority to target, arrest and detain Latinos. The suit says the Sheriff's Office routinely holds Latinos longer than the maximum 72 hours for immigration holds.