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Tenn. police get immigration enforcement training

By Lori Yount
The Chattanooga Times Free Press

WHITFIELD COUNTY, Tenn. — Six Whitfield County sheriff's officers will begin training this month to allow them to identify, hold and even start deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants booked into the county jail on criminal charges, officials said.

Sheriff Scott Chitwood said his department applied several months ago to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to have eight officers participate in the increasingly popular 287(g) program.

It allows local law enforcement agencies to enter into agreement with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents to help enforce immigration laws starting at local jails.

However, Sheriff Chitwood said he was told when he inquired that training was "off." Then he received a call in December stating he'd been given approval for six of his officers to begin training in Gainesville this month.

"It's enhanced training provided to officers to assist ICE in identifying potential illegals," Sheriff Chitwood said.

Money for 287(g) has been in flux as the federal fiscal year 2007 came to a close at the end of September. The budget for fiscal year 2008 wasn't passed until the end of December. The final spending bill allotted $26.4 million for the program, ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly said.

"We now see things flowing more normally," she said.

Having Whitfield corrections officers trained in immigration enforcement will provide relief to North Georgia's four-person ICE office, Dalton-based agent Steve Peluso said.

"My agents, instead of going to the facility and interviewing and processing (inmates), can go work on the criminals out on the street," he said.

Corrections officers usually have had to depend on inquiries to a national ICE database to determine whether an inmate is a suspected illegal immigrant, Mr. Peluso said.

With 287(g) training, he said, corrections officers will not only have direct access to the national ICE database, but also have the ability to compare inmates' fingerprints with those in the database and, most importantly, be permitted to interview inmates not born in the United States about their legal status.

The authority could help stop the release of illegal immigrant offenders who, if ever granted bond, disappear from the area.

The programs training and resources, for example, could have prevented the release of Juan Carlos Ruiz-Pineda in September, Agent Peluso said.

Mr. Ruiz-Pineda was charged with possession of a stockpile of child pornography, but he was released on $25,000 from the Whitfield County Jail after a requested computer check of the national database drew the response that there was no reason to hold the suspect.

He has since disappeared and is on the Dalton Police Department's most-wanted list, according to officials.

"That would've been flagged" if the corrections officers had immigration enforcement training "instead of depending on a computer," Agent Peluso said. "I'm not saying any errors were made. Face-to-face is always the best way" to determine legal status.

ICE officials emphasized the 287(g) program focuses on checking the legal status of people arrested and jailed as suspects in crimes and does not encourage local law enforcement to round up suspects off the streets and check their immigration status without cause.

"They're not going to be out there with a bus booking people," Agent Peluso said.

Once the 287(g) corrections officers determine a jail inmate is an illegal immigrant, they can begin the deportation process, but an ICE agent would have to transfer the inmate to a federal holding facility, Ms. Reilly said. And that is only after the inmate has gone through "due process" and is tried for a crime and serves a sentence if convicted, she said.

The Whitfield County Sheriff's Office joins the Cobb County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Department of Public Safety in being approved for the 287(g) program in Georgia, according to ICE records.

Enforcing immigration laws is "on the people's mind" in Whitfield County, said state Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton.

"For the officers to be trained, we'll welcome that," he said, adding that he hopes the Legislature, which begins its session Jan. 14, will work on bills to require more stringent proof of citizenship when registering to vote or applying for state benefits.

In Southeast Tennessee, Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble said his department still has an interest in applying for the 287(g) program but was refused an application this summer because he was told the program was "suspended." But he said he continues to work with U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to bring the training to the county jail, which is certified to hold federal prisoners.

"It's been a frustrating experience," Sheriff Gobble said.

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