Approximately 200 convicted illegal immigrants were handcuffed together and moved into a separate area of what has been deemed Tent City, by order of Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Wednesday, Feb. 4 2009. Arpaio is using Tent City to keep illegal immigrants separate from the rest of the inmate population. (AP photo)
FAIRFAX, — Va. Ordinarily, Nelson Portillo-Lozano would have been free to leave the Fairfax County jail when he posted bail March 19 after being charged with assault.
Because of a new effort to find illegal immigrants in jails, Portillo-Lozano, 22, went into custody of U.S. immigration authorities.
He got caught by a program that for the first time checks the fingerprints of people held by local authorities against federal immigration databases. Forty-eight communities have joined since October, mostly in areas with large illegal-immigrant populations.
In Fairfax County, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has put detainers on 200 of the jail's 1,300 inmates since the program began there March 9, said Capt. Glenda Pfister of the county sheriff's office.
"When we have aliens who are serious criminals, they get removed from the county instead of being released to the street," Pfister said.
The program, called Secure Communities, comes in response to lawmakers urging ICE to deport more illegal immigrants incarcerated for serious crimes.
The number of deported criminals rose 60% from 2002 to 2008. Over the same period, the total number of illegal immigrants deported rose 400%. Critics say that trend suggests ICE is too focused on illegal immigrants in communities and at worksites rather than those serving prison terms.
"There's something badly wrong here," Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said of illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes are released from prisons rather than deported.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas wrote a scathing letter in November to then-Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff saying he was "outraged" that "thousands of criminal aliens" in Texas jails were not deported after their sentences. Some were subsequently charged with murder, rape and robbery, he said. Price led efforts to give ICE $1.2 billion in 2008 and 2009 combined to step up deportations of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. About one-third of the 370,000 illegal immigrants deported last year were convicts.
"Maybe there's a tendency to go after the easier targets rather than the most important targets," he said.
Former ICE chief Julie Myers Wood said deporting criminals was "my top priority." ICE has also been deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants who have not been convicted of crimes and under earlier policy would have been released with orders to appear in immigration court at a later date, Wood said.
Many illegal immigrants being deported "aren't causing problems," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.
Janet Napolitano, the new Homeland Security secretary, says she wants to focus on deporting illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes.
Secure Communities will play a vital role, program chief David Venturella said. "When the secretary talked about making criminal aliens a priority, she really emphasized the ability to share information with local law enforcement," Venturella said.
Under the program, digital fingerprints of people arrested or imprisoned are automatically transmitted to ICE at the same time that they go to the FBI for a standard criminal-record check. The fingerprints are matched against federal immigration databases. If someone is found to be wanted on immigration charges, ICE notifies local authorities within an hour so the person is not released, Venturella said.
That's a huge improvement, said Pfister of the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office. Previously, the county would run a check with ICE only if a detainee acknowledged being foreign-born or not a U.S. citizen -- a loophole that relied on detainee honesty, Pfister said. The sheriff's office sent ICE biographical information -- not fingerprints -- which often was falsified. ICE could take days to reply, by which time some detainees had been released, Pfister said.
In November and December, Secure Communities flagged nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants being held by authorities. The illegal status of those people "would have otherwise remained undetected," ICE said.
Price, the chairman of the House Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee, said Secure Communities is helpful, though he said ICE still needs to focus more on removing dangerous criminals.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., worries that focusing too much on criminal deportations won't keep illegal immigrants from entering the U.S. "Deporting criminal aliens is not protecting the borders," Rogers said.