November 12, 2008

Dallas County jails launch new system to check prisoners' immigration status

08:14 PM CST on Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas County jail system on Wednesday became one of the first in the nation to use a new federal database to identify illegal immigrants during the book-in process.

Normally, when prisoners are booked into jails, their fingerprints are run through a national database to check their criminal history. Under the new initiative, fingerprints also will be automatically run through a similar database to check the person's immigration status.

If the computer shows a prisoner is in the country illegally, he or she will be referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which will determine whether to place an immigration hold on the person. The same applies to non-U.S. citizens who have been convicted of certain crimes while in the country legally.

After the person's criminal charges are resolved through probation or prison time, they will be referred to ICE for deportation.

"Nobody wants to live next to a criminal. It's all about making the communities safer," said Pablo Campos, assistant field office director for ICE in Dallas.

Currently, prisoners' immigration status is checked in jails only if they are referred to federal immigration agents or if they are questioned by agents who are stationed in the jails. For at least 10 years, Dallas County's main jail facility has had a small office for one or two ICE agents who randomly question prisoners to try to determine their immigration status.

The agents, however, would have to rely on prisoners truthfully answering questions about their name, place of birth and other information.

Now, as prisoners are being booked into jail, their fingerprints will be run through a database containing more than 90 million records – a process that is fast and accurate, Mr. Campos said.

The new database link is a key part of ICE's "Secure Communities" plan to identify and remove illegal immigrants from local communities.

The goal is to give all local jails in the U.S. a link to the federal government's databases. By next spring, ICE plans to make the database link available to more than 50 state and local law enforcement agencies.

The database, which includes people who were already deported by ICE, was created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.

Mr. Campos said ICE has increased its staffing to monitor computer terminals in anticipation of more referrals from local jails. The challenge, he said, will be to have enough space to hold prisoners before they're deported.

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