Homeland Security launches program to find illegal immigrants in jails

The Homeland Security Department will launch a program Monday aimed at identifying illegal immigrants held in county and city jails across the country, but critics worry that nonthreatening individuals could be ensnarled in confusing deportation proceedings or denied legal protections.

With an infusion of funding from the Congress, the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has started an aggressive effort to find illegal immigrants who are incarcerated and enter them into deportation proceedings. ICE says its initial focus is on finding and removing illegal immigrants who have been convicted of violent crimes or those convicted of major drug offenses.

The program will allow local law enforcement agencies to automatically compare the fingerprints of their prisoners against FBI criminal databases and Homeland Security immigration databases. When law enforcement officials run a check on fingerprints against the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, a check will automatically be done against Homeland Security's Automated Biometric Identification System.

The program will begin with the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Texas, with the goal of being expanded to about 50 other local law enforcement agencies by the spring.

"It sounds rather simple but it really changes the way we do business and the way we go about identifying individuals for immigration enforcement," said David Venturella, director of ICE's Secure Communities program.

"We're going to be measured and careful in our rollout but we're going to do it as aggressively as possible," he added.

ICE will first focus on having the program operational with county jails and then at city jails. Venturella said reaching all jail booking sites will take three and a half years. But he said doing so will require much more funding from Congress to cover additional costs, such as more detention capacity and transportation services.

ICE estimates the total cost could be $3 billion a year, which is more than half the total annual budget of the entire agency. The total number of criminal illegal immigrants in U.S. jails who were charged with deportable offenses surged to more than 220,000 in fiscal 2008, according to statistics released by ICE last week. This compares to about 164,000 in 2007 and 67,000 in 2006. ICE estimates that federal, state and local prisons and jails hold between 300,000 to 450,000 criminal illegal immigrants who are potentially removable.

Immigration advocates agree that illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes should be deported. But they fear noncitizens might not be given proper legal protections.

"Our concern is making sure that people have access to counsel or are advised of their rights," said Kerri Sherlock Talbot, associate director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Sometimes people are pressured into signing away their rights by basically stipulating that they are removable from the United States," she said.

Some illegal immigrants might qualify for visas, such as those who can legitimately claim asylum or those who have been victimized or trafficked, she said. Although ICE says it is only targeting illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes, immigration advocates worry that nonthreatening individuals might get swept up in the process.

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