Roughly 350 of the 2,500 inmates in Mecklenburg County’s jail are illegal immigrants, said Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, who unveiled the jail’s new immigration enforcement system Wednesday.
Sheriff’s deputies now check the residency status of every foreign-born person brought to the county jail on criminal charges.
Pendergraph’s office is one of six agencies nationwide participating in a pilot program to check the status of inmates using a federal immigration database.
“We’re trying to get this criminal element out of the community and back to where they come from,” Pendergraph said. “And we want to send a message, ‘Don’t come back to Mecklenburg County.’”
Illegal immigrants who have been deported before or charged with the most serious crimes will be deported, officials said.
Others stopped on lesser offenses will also be reported to federal officials for possible deportation.
Pendergraph said the illegal immigrant jail population has grown from 2 percent to 15 percent in the past three years. He said more than 100 illegal immigrants have been processed since the jail began using the new database in April.
Illegal immigration has become a contentious issue in North Carolina as the undocumented community has exploded to 390,000 people. Pendergraph said he was prompted to take action partly because of the lack of federal enforcement of immigration laws, he said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the program will help prevent illegal immigrants from falling through the cracks. Many illegal immigrants, said Deborah McColgan, special agent for ICE temporarily assigned to the Sheriff’s Office, are arrested on charges, such as DWI, that are not deportable offenses.
Paulo Sergio Delacruz, a 33-year-old Mexican national, was arrested in March on drug and robbery charges and has been awaiting a court hearing.
On Wednesday, a sheriff’s deputy used the new system to take digital fingerprints and a photograph of Delacruz. Less than a minute later, the computer identified that Delacruz was the same person who, in 2001, was caught twice trying to cross the Mexican border through Arizona. And last year, he was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and violating open container laws.