Immigration pact to speed ID of illegals

By Amanda Casciaro, Marietta Daily Journal, October 27, 2006

MARIETTA - Officials expect to identify more illegal aliens once Cobb cements an agreement with the federal government to access its national database to screen jail inmates, but that's as far as the county can push to fight illegal immigration.

The database tells officers if an inmate is illegally in the country, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has final say in who stays and who gets deported.

The Cobb County Sheriff's Office has turned 53 inmates over to immigration and customs officials in the past six months, and about 73 inmates have "holds," most of which cite Mexico as their country of origin, Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren said.

"Sheriff's Office personnel will screen inmates coming into the jail to determine whether they are in the country illegally," Warren said. "If it is determined that the inmate is an illegal alien, paperwork will be processed to begin the hearing and deportation process.

The agreement approved Tuesday simply gives Cobb deputies access to a federal database, which takes advantage of a rarely used section of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act. Cobb's approval makes it one of seven governments in the country and the first in Georgia to take action.

Every misdemeanor or felony offender who enters the Cobb County Jail will be subject to review, once the program is given federal approval. If offenders are found guilty of their charges, deportation proceedings won't begin until they satisfy their sentence in Georgia.

If acquitted, offenders' information still will be handed over to federal officials.

"Once all local charges are disposed of - dismissal, acquittal, serving a sentence, etc. - the inmate will be turned over to ICE for deportation," Warren said.

A slow-moving federal system means Cobb taxpayers will pay to house felony offenders - before and after their conviction - until federal agents pick them up.

"We may encounter an individual at the Cobb County Jail, and let's say they're arrested on a serious offense and ultimately serve their sentence in the state system, said Ken Smith, special agent in-charge of the Atlanta regional ICE office.

"We also work with the state of Georgia for the intake of all state inmates. We'll identify them on whatever level they're on and place a (detainment order) on that individual. Eventually, they'll rotate into ICE custody for removal."

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department in Charlotte, N.C., began using the database in April.

"We don't deport them; we only put them into removal proceedings," department spokeswoman Julia Rusha said. "What ICE does to them once they get to Atlanta, we don't know.

"Could somebody deport an individual who just has an open container offense and has been convicted? Yes, they could. Will they? You look at the resources Homeland Security has, and the answer is probably not. Are they letting them go? I guess you could look at it and say that, but we're definitely compiling the information."

The agreement, which the federal government still must approve, will grant access to the database to Cobb law enforcement, which lets officers find out an inmate's immigration status in about five to 10 seconds instead of the hours or days it took by contacting immigration officials.

Mecklenburg County has seen a significant rise in illegal immigrants transferred to immigration officials for deportation proceedings since officers there began using the database six months ago.

Of the 1,617 offenders run through the database since April, the sheriff's department has identified 835 illegal aliens. Each has either been given a notice to appear in federal immigration court in Atlanta or placed in a holding facility until deportation proceedings can occur, Ms. Rush said.

"Before the agreement was passed, if someone came into the jail on an aggravated felony or a violent crime, we would send an electronic message to ICE in Vermont and say we've got this person, and here are their fingerprints," Ms. Rush said.

"We may hear back from them; we may not. It may be an hour; it may be weeks. Now, since we have direct access to their database, we can check it ourselves in a matter of seconds."

An Aug. 15 report by the Cobb Sheriff's Office states only five of the 78 inmates in Cobb with immigration holds have misdemeanor charges. The majority is in jail for cocaine trafficking, gun possession used during a crime, sexual battery, aggravated assault, burglary and other "serious" federal crimes, Cobb County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Deputy Nancy Bodiford said.

"The intent of this program is to identify, prosecute and, after they serve their sentence, deport illegal aliens committing crimes in Cobb County," Warren said. "The message we are sending is simple - If you are in the United States illegally, don't commit a crime that will land you in the Cobb County Jail."

But no matter how tough Cobb gets on illegal aliens, officials still are at the mercy of the federal government when it comes to deportation.

"Our focus is really criminal investigations, conducting criminal investigations to identify the organizations that support illegal immigration," ICE's Smith said. "Those who pose the greatest threat to the community are where we start."

Roswell Police Department, which has faxed 10,000 names of illegal immigrants to the ICE regional field office in Atlanta in the past nine months, is in the same boat.

Although the department and Police Chief Edwin Williams provide name after name, day after day to federal authorities, ICE officials only have picked up three immigrants since February.

But, it's what counties can do that concerns the Cobb commissioners and Warren. By signing the agreement, they can obtain federal training for their officers to prepare them to handle illegal aliens they run across daily.

"We have begun working on a draft (memorandum of understanding) with ICE but are still awaiting final approval from ICE to participate in the program," Warren said. "The next milestone will be the approval by ICE of the deputies selected for the program and the scheduling of training."

According to Mrs. Bodiford, the department will likely only send detention officers from the jail to the five-week training course.

Despite unanimous support from the Cobb commission, Latino organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund haves expressed displeasure with the agreement.

Checking the legal status of everyone entering the county jail will "erode trust in communities, divert resources away from solving violent crimes and/or dealing with violent criminals (in this case, housing violent criminals), and allow local police officers to enter a complex area where ultimately the federal government has authority," a letter to commissioners from Tisha R. Tallman, southeast regional counsel wrote.

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