Houston Sheriffs Round Up Thousands of Illegals

Peter Barnes, Washington Times, November 12, 2009

While Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix gets all the media attention for his crackdown on illegal immigrants, eight deputies in an unremarkable office at the Harris County Jail are posting similar numbers for deportation–and doing so without controversy.

Working two per shift, the deputies refer roughly 1,000 suspected illegal immigrants to federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities every month, helping to make the Southern District of Texas by far the busiest in the nation for illegal-immigration prosecutions.

Since joining a federal program in August 2008 that trains local law authorities to enforce immigration law, the sheriff’s office has turned up high-level gang members, a suspect wanted for murder in Mexico, and illegal immigrants from countries around the world, Lt. Michael Lindsay said.

Harris County frequently refers more cases in a given month than any other local police agency in the program, he said.

But what makes the Harris County program stand apart is a routine that insulates it from the accusations of profiling that have drawn prominent criticism to programs like that run by Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Unlike in Maricopa County, Harris County authorities do not run street sweeps in search of illegal immigrants. But they do question everybody booked into the jail about their immigration status.

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Fingerprints from all inmates accused of felonies or serious misdemeanors are forwarded automatically to ICE’s data center, which can identify matches to prints from immigrants who have had prior dealings with law enforcement.

Jail officers specially trained to determine immigration status can question and check the fingerprints of anyone suspected of a lesser crime.

Those who are still suspected of illegal immigration are referred to ICE agents working on site who can ask the county to turn over inmates to the agency upon their release from jail.

Referrals that ICE pursues are prosecuted in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. According to a Syracuse University study based on federal records, the Houston-based court handled nearly 23,000 immigration prosecutions in the first nine months of fiscal 2009–by far the most of any district court in the country and a projected increase of 22 percent over last year.

The sheriff’s office was the first in the country to use the Secure Communities program, which gives local law enforcement access to immigration databases. {snip}

Despite the even-handed approach, Harris County’s program has its critics, some of whom testified to the Harris County Commission before the program was renewed last month. They argued that it too often targets perpetrators of petty misdemeanors, causing undue hardship on families and discouraging immigrants from reporting crimes.

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But the sheriff’s office maintains that its approach provides an important law enforcement tool. The jail inmates “would not come to our attention if they had not broken the law or been accused of breaking the law,” Lt. Lindsay said.

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Many Hispanic and immigrant groups urged the Obama administration to end the program. {snip}

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The decision not to use 287(g) for patrol officers by both of Houston’s biggest police departments stands in contrast to agencies using the program that have drawn the most attention, most notably Phoenix.

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