Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Richardson to America: Enforcement Works!

From Tim Richardson

San Antonio Express-News

U.S., local immigration teamwork is hailed
Web Posted: 02/10/2008 11:07 PM CST

Hernán Rozemberg

The rapid growth of a little-known program that teams federal agents with local authorities to identify and deport jailed immigrants is being embraced as a way to reduce crime and illegal immigration simultaneously.

The expansion has been felt throughout South Central Texas, with 22 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents added to the area last year.

The Travis County Sheriff's Department approved an ICE request last month to open an office at its lockup. A similar acceleration is planned for Bexar County Jail, which ICE agents already visit daily.

Under the Criminal Alien Program, the agents check inmates identified by jail administrators as foreign nationals.

Those who are not legally in the country — a determination that only federal agents can make — receive "detainers," meaning ICE agents have one day after their release date to take them into federal custody once their criminal cases are resolved.

They're subject to deportation after they've served their sentence — or if the charges are dismissed without a conviction.

The Criminal Alien Program has operated since the 1980s under the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. CAP is one of an array of programs the Department of Homeland Security last year offered to local and state law enforcement agencies.

"It has always been a politically popular concept," said Jan Ting, assistant INS commissioner in the early 1990s. "Who could argue against saying, 'Hey, we're kicking bad guys out?'"

But until last year, CAP had been an informal arrangement without a centralized tracking system.

Now its funding has increased and it has moved from ICE's investigations unit to its detention and deportation wing, with a goal of assigning CAP teams to more than 4,000 local jails and state prisons and 114 federal prisons.

"I live in this community," said Adrian Ramírez, second in command of ICE's detention and deportation office in San Antonio, whose five CAP teams are responsible for monitoring inmates at 84 jails in 54 counties stretching from Harlingen north to Temple and from Del Rio east to Victoria.

"We don't want the reintroduction of criminal aliens into our community. We don't want to free up people that could cause harm," Ramírez added.

That's a goal shared by local authorities, who have welcomed federal agents into their jails.

Dale Bennett, a deputy chief with the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, said ICE agents have been checking inmate rolls at the county jail for years.

"If they're criminal aliens, they need to be gone," Bennett said. "If we have (ICE agents) sit in an office to screen possible illegal aliens, it would only speed up the process."

Though the program is under ICE control, in some areas such as the Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol agents have retained "jail check" duties, said agency spokesman Oscar Saldaña in Edinburg.

The CAP expansion has been controversial after the national attention it gathered in Irving, a suburb of Dallas. The city's Police Department took the initiative by dramatically increasing its referrals to ICE, leading to the deportation of more than 2,000 people since September 2006.

Though the city claimed the move was the primary factor in a 7 percent drop in crime from 2006 to 2007, it created an uproar in the Hispanic community, which accused police and city leaders of trying to clear out Latino residents through racial profiling.

Ramírez, the ICE administrator here, said that for security reasons he couldn't divulge how agents determine inmates' immigration status, but he noted that it's not done by race or ethnicity. Security also was the reason the agency denied repeated Express-News requests to observe ICE agents on CAP duty at Bexar County Jail.

Nationwide, more local law enforcement agencies are asking ICE to visit their jails. The annual budget for CAP efforts has ballooned from $33.7 million in 2005 to $178.8 million this year.

Localities signing up span the country, from Los Angeles County, Calif., to the city of Lewisville near Denton, to Okaloosa County in Florida and Suffolk County in New York.

It's hard to tell what the precise effect will be, other than a presumed increase in the numbers being deported. In practice, the program has given priority to identifying and deporting felons, but the expansion aims to include undocumented immigrants booked into jail on any crime.

Statistics on how many Bexar inmates have been flagged for deportation were unavailable. Ramírez said nationwide record keeping has been spotty at best and ICE only recently standardized it, so the agency does not know how many of the 164,296 criminally charged undocumented immigrants it identified in 2007 were actually deported.

Chris Kirk, sheriff of Brazos County and president of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas which represents all 254 county sheriffs in the state, said his colleagues deem illegal immigration a problem for local law enforcement.

But he noted that not all of them may deal with the issue the same way. While he would personally welcome CAP agents, others may not be so agreeable.

"Texas is a very diverse state" Kirk said. "We've got 254 counties and 254 ways that sheriffs choose to deal with this question."

Principal opposition to CAP has come from immigrant advocates, who don't question the need to swiftly boot out convicted felons. Their beef is the potential abuse of power by local authorities.

Nina Perales, regional counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in San Antonio, which has participated in lawsuits against cities trying to assume immigration enforcement powers, said there's not much accountability for programs such as CAP.

For example, there could be legal worries with the way jail workers flag potential illegal inmates for ICE.

"They need to understand that CAP is a limited program and you can't use it to declare open season on Latinos or immigrants," Perales said.

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