(CNSNews.com) - Anyone charged in Mecklenburg County, N.C., with an offense serious enough to warrant arrest is asked two questions: Are you a U.S. citizen, and what is your country of birth? An answer indicating that the person is here illegally triggers a largely unexploited innovation in federal law, which empowers state and local officials to accelerate the deportation of criminal aliens.
Law enforcement personnel in Mecklenburg County -- and in other parts of the country where authorities are capitalizing on the program -- report benefits including enhanced public safety and reduced prison costs.
According to Sgt. Quinn Stansell of the county sheriff's department, criminal aliens -- people who have transgressed state and local laws in addition to having entered the country illegally -- are more easily identified and prepared for deportation as a result of a new and dynamic partnership with federal officials.
"Not only are they here illegally but they are committing crimes against our citizens," he said. "If it weren't for this program, they would go through our system and be back out on the street. Now, we can start the deportation process."
The program Stansell refers to is Section 287(g) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Although it was added to the legislation in 1996, its take-up around the country has been slow, only gaining some momentum in recent years.
The provision allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division to enter into partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies, in which local officers are authorized to operate as federal immigration agents.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), an ardent supporter of the program, told Cybercast News Service that "only a handful" of local communities are taking full advantage of the resources available under the measure for immigration enforcement. Poe said $50 million available to local law enforcement agencies is not being used.
Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow specializing in defense and homeland security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the program was "slow in getting off the ground" for a variety of reasons.
The DHS did not push very aggressively at first because the onus was on that department to set up training and have its own agents supervise, he said. DHS was reluctant to expend the resources and manpower until there was "some evidence of payoff."
With the results now in from the early participants, however, the program was being marketed more effectively, he said.
For a period of time, Carafano said, he served as conduit between interested localities and ICE officials since the government itself wasn't actively publicizing the program. "I was getting the phone calls," he recalled.
A participating law enforcement agency enters into an agreement with ICE that outlines the "scope and limitations" of the authority wielded at the local level, explained ICE spokesman Richard Rocha. Twenty such agreements are currently in place.
The program may be shaped in many ways to best accommodate the challenges of different communities, he said. For instance, in Alabama state troopers work with motor vehicle licensing stations to verify the immigration status of foreign nationals, while other localities use sheriff's departments and prison officials.
Roche said ICE offers and funds two separate training programs -- a four-week "jail enforcement officers" course and a five-week "taskforce officers" course. More than 290 local officers have trained so far.
Mecklenburg opted to use 287(g) in its jail system to great effect over the past year, according to Stansell. There are currently 10 deputies and two sergeants in the program.
In the county, once a suspected criminal alien is processed, locally trained ICE agents are given access to federal databases providing criminal records and immigration history. When an immigration violation becomes evident, a "detainer" is placed on the individual, Stansell explained, so that once they have completed their jail sentence, they "roll into ICE custody" for an immigration court hearing and probable deportation.
Since Mecklenburg started the program, 3,490 foreign-born individuals have been checked against the federal identification system, according to county records. Of these, 1,898 have been moved to removal proceedings.
One hundred and twenty-five have been identified as "re-entries," meaning they had previously been deported. In those cases, they are held for "mandatory deportation" without having to go before an immigration judge, said Julia Rush, director of communications for the county sheriff's office.
The same applies in cases where someone has failed to appear before an immigration court.
Rush said the removal process is initiated in the jail system, although the actual deportation phase falls under ICE, which "buses out" anywhere from 40 to 130 people each week from the country to federal holding facilities.
In Arizona, the removal of criminal aliens into federal custody has been streamlined to the point where the state has saved $10.2 million in incarceration costs since 2005, Katie Decker, a spokeswoman with the state's department of corrections, said in an interview.
Before the program was initiated, ICE agents would sometimes take up to three months to determine whether a criminal should be taken into federal custody for immigration violations, she said. Now, the prison system's intake facilities have a separate section exclusively devoted to ICE operations, expediting the process considerably.
Someone identified as a criminal alien in Arizona generally serves only half of the sentence -- for whatever crime they committed in the state -- before being removed into federal custody. By contrast, most other inmates serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for early release, Decker said.
Arizona's prison system is now holding 5,000 inmates more than the 36,000 allocated for in the state budget. Decker pointed out that some 4,600 criminal aliens in the system accounts for most of the excess.
"It's ironic -- if we could just put the criminal aliens into the federal system where they belong, we would no longer have such an issue with funding," she said.
See Related Story:
Illegal Immigration Crackdown Helps Root Out Other Crimes (May 16, 2007)
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