Stanislaus County inmates all get immigration check

Jail scans prints to identify deportable criminals

March 8, 2010 

Each time someone is booked at Stanislaus County jail facilities, the inmate's fingerprints are sent electronically to the FBI's criminal database to check the person's criminal history.

New technology will now simultaneously send those fingerprints to immigration officials trying to identify dangerous criminals who entered the country illegally.

The technology is part of a federal initiative called Secure Communities, which checks the immigration status of anyone booked at jails across the country.

Secure Communities is designed by the Department of Homeland Security to identify immigrants in local jails who are deportable under immigration law.

Instead of releasing repeat offenders back into the community, the automated computer system will assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in deporting them.

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said the initiative is an expansion of his department's partnership with immigration agents.

He said housing repeat offenders who are in the country illegally puts a financial burden on overcrowded county jails.

"It costs the local taxpayers money to house these folks," Christianson said. "We already have ICE agents who come to the jail to deal with illegal immigrants. (The new technology) makes it more efficient from the public safety standpoint."

Christianson said the days of the ink-stain method of collecting fingerprints at the jail is long gone. The process is computerized with digital scanners and automated software that send information electronically to state and national databases.

He said the Secure Communities initiative further modernizes the process of checking an inmate's background.

Stanislaus and San Joaquin recently became the latest counties in the state to implement Secure Communities. Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Diego, Imperial, Solano and Sacramento counties have implemented the program.

Some critics claim Secure Communities might create problems for local community policing.

If the immigration agency maintains a presence -- even a technological one -- in a local jail, the public likely will associate the local law enforcement agency with immigration enforcement, according to a November 2009 report by the Immigration Policy Center.

Christianson said the technology is automated, and deputies don't know when the fingerprints match someone in the Homeland Security database.

Once the computer finds a match, immigration agents evaluate the case and take appropriate action. Christianson said the agents will come to the jail to interview the inmate to validate his or her immigration status.

In most cases, immigration agents will issue a "detainer" or request for the jail to notify the agency before it releases the inmate. Immigration agents then will decide whether the inmate should be transferred to federal custody rather than released.

The Immigration Policy Center report stated there is no clear complaint procedure for inmates who believe they have been erroneously identified or a detainer has been issued in error.

Violent offenders identified

Immigration officials said their immediate attention will be focused on inmates who pose the greatest threat to public safety, such as those with prior convictions for major drug offenses, murder, rape, robbery or kidnapping.

Immigration agency officials said the automated technology nationally has identified more than 11,000 inmates charged or convicted with those level 1 crimes since the October 2008 launch of Secure Communities. About 1,900 of those inmates have been deported.

The background check also targets inmates charged or convicted of level 2 and level 3 crimes, including burglary and other serious property crimes. The technology has identified more than 100,000 of these inmates nationally.

The number of detainers on level 1 crimes is far exceeded by detainers on levels 2 and 3 crimes.

The Immigration Policy Center recommended that ICE reinforce its commitment to prioritize those inmates convicted of egregious felonies or who truly pose a threat to the community.

The immigration background check is used by 116 jurisdictions in 16 states across the country. Immigration agencyofficials expect Secure Communities to have a presence in every state by next year, with nationwide coverage anticipated by 2013.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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