Sheriff says system for detaining illegal immigrants working so far

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Rowan County Sheriff George Wilhelm says his officers contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely to determine whether people arrested and placed in his jail are illegal immigrants.
With ICE’s cooperation, Wilhelm says, he thinks things “are actually getting better.”
When the Sheriff’s Office makes an arrest, information on every suspect is run through FBI and SBI computers. For foreign-born individuals, the sheriff’s office also runs an inquiry through the ICE office in Charlotte and supplies the furnished names, aliases, Social Security and driver’s license numbers for the people arrested.
Contacting the ICE office requires an extra step, and sometimes the Rowan officers have to wait until the next work day, or until Monday if an arrest occurs on a weekend.
ICE will put a hold or “detainer” on the suspect if it determines he or she might be here illegally.
Wilhelm says his office is “generally not losing people who should be detained.”
Sgt. Karen Brindle at the Rowan County Detention Center said as of last Thursday the local jail had 13 suspected illegal aliens in custody, and ICE had placed detainers on 12 of the 13.
From the beginning of the year, Brindle said, the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office had run about 200 inquiries with ICE. She said the number can be “somewhat misleading” because it reflects duplicates.
But of those 200, 30 of the foreign-born prisoners were “confirmed legal citizens,” Brindle reported, while ICE placed detainers on 52 of the people in custody.
Those inmates with detainers are eventually picked up by ICE officers or, if they receive an active sentence, are shipped to the Department of Corrections with the detainer attached to their paperwork, Brindle said.
ICE officers pick them up at the completion of their time in prison and start processing them for deportation.
Wilhelm says he is pleased with a pilot program that has been set up between the N.C. Sheriff’s Association and ICE รณ a partnership that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., has been pushing over the last year.
Dole says the statewide plan to identify, apprehend and deport criminal aliens is working.
Brian Nick, Dole’s chief of staff, has told the Post that while North Carolina was deporting 26 illegal criminal aliens a month a few years ago, the number has grown to more than 500 a month now.
Dole says that every county choosing to participate in the statewide pilot program will be given the tools necessary to work with ICE officials to identify and deport illegal aliens who commit a crime.
For Rowan County, Wilhelm is hoping it means his office will have a direct link to the ICE data base by the end of this year. That way, his officers could run fingerprints through ICE, in addition to the normal checks with the FBI and SBI data bases.
It would eliminate the overnight or weekend delays in checking with ICE during which an illegal alien suspect could possibly make bond and leave the county’s custody, Wilhelm said.
Having the direct link to ICE’s data base would be a simple matter of “instead of hitting a button one time, you would hit it twice,” Wilhelm said.
Seven N.C. counties and the Durham Police Department are participating in the federal government’s 287(g) program designed to give local law enforcement agencies training and software necessary to determine on their own whether the people they’re arresting are legal U.S. citizens.
In effect, Wilhelm said, the 287(g) program allows trained deputies within a county to act as ICE agents and put detainers on prisoners immediately.
Counties participating in the 287(g) program include Cabarrus, Gaston, Alamance, Mecklenburg, Henderson, Wake and Cumberland.
North Carolina has the most counties participating, but the federal money is limited. Plus, counties have to guarantee that jail beds are available just for the criminal suspects being detained as illegal aliens.
In the long run, Wilhelm says, it’s better for Rowan County not to be in the 287(g) program because it would mean he’d have to set aside 30 to 40 beds in his already crowded jail to keep the federal funding.
He emphasized that the 287(g) program and the statewide plan being formulated with Dole’s help between the Sheriff’s Association and ICE are different. Most counties, such as Rowan, will not be part of the 287(g) program, he notes.
Wilhelm says the efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants that come into his jail are focused only on the people committing crimes. He acknowledges he often hears complaints that any person in the United States illegally, whether they’ve committed a crime or not, is a criminal.
But with his office’s limited manpower, Wilhelm prefers looking at it as dealing with the illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the United States, not those who commit crimes against the United States.
Ten years ago, Wilhelm says, the Rowan jail probably had an average of five foreign-born inmates. Now the foreign-born suspects make up 20 percent of the detention center’s population, he says.