11/22/2010

Ga. cops want power to enforce immigration

Through written agreements with the federal government, local police and sheriff's deputies are given the power to question people about whether they are in the country legally and issue arrest warrants, prepare charging documents, and detain and transport criminals

By Jeremy Redmon
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Federal officials confirmed this month they are still weighing whether to give law enforcement officers in Cherokee and Rockdale counties and Roswell the power to enforce the nation's immigration laws.

The Cherokee County Sheriff's Office first applied in 2008 to participate in the 287(g) program, which got its name for its section number in the federal Immigration and Nationality Act. Rockdale applied at the end of August, and Roswell has applied three times since 2006.

Meanwhile, records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act show U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has rejected 287(g) applications from Columbia, Forsyth and Oconee counties. In the cases of Forsyth and Oconee counties, ICE cited a lack of sufficient staff and funding for jail space, the federal records show. Columbia County was rejected because it had low numbers of foreign-born inmates booked into its jail, according to ICE.

Through written agreements with the federal government in the 287(g) program, local police and sheriff's deputies are given the power to question people about whether they are in the country legally and issue arrest warrants, prepare charging documents and detain and transport criminals for immigration violations. The Georgia Department of Public Safety and Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties have 287(g) agreements with ICE.

Counties applying to participate provide information about their communities in a 13-page form. The form asks numerous questions, including whether they have encountered foreign-born gang members, fraudulent immigration documents and counterfeit goods. It also asks them how many foreign-born inmates are booked into their jails annually.

ICE officials said they can't accept everyone into the $68 million program, in part because of limited funding. ICE covers the costs of supervising the program, training officers and purchasing equipment.

Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle and other Georgia sheriffs said they want to join the program because illegal immigrants are committing crimes in their communities and winding up in their jails.

Whittle conceded his community doesn't have a huge problem with illegal immigration, but he expressed frustration with the rejection. He guessed that between 200 and 300 illegal immigrants are booked into his jail annually. On a recent day, the jail held 267 inmates.

"You are waiting until you have a huge number to say, 'Now we will spend some money on it.' It just doesn't make sense to me," he said. "I think it is much better dollarwise and from a crime-reduction standpoint to be proactive ahead of time."

An ICE spokeswoman said selections are based on whether the participation is likely to be sustainable and beneficial. Federal officials in Washington work with local ICE officials to make selections.

"The requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis," ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said, "which takes into account a needs assessment survey completed by the requesting law enforcement agency and the needs and limitations of" local ICE officials.

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