WASHINGTON – Washington County stands to become the second Maryland jurisdiction to join a controversial immigration program when it completes its planned jail expansion next year.
Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore said the county is eying the 287(g) program, which gives some powers of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to local deputies.
“Once we get some additional space, we will certainly consider implementing the 287(g) program in its entirety,” Mullendore said.
Jail overcrowding is the main reason why the county is not participating now, Mullendore said. The sheriff’s office needs its space for local prisoners and can’t provide beds to federal agencies, he said.
Participation in the ICE program allows local law enforcement officers to perform some duties of a federal immigration officer — such as accessing ICE databases, detaining unauthorized immigrant suspects and beginning the deportation process — as sanctioned by section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Many Washington County residents don’t really understand the 287(g) program, Mullendore said.
“They wonder why we haven’t done the same thing as Frederick County,” he said. “I explain to them we don’t have the bed space.”
The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office is the sole 287(g) participant in Maryland. The state had the 10th-largest population of unauthorized immigrants in 2009 at 250,000 people, or about 4.5 percent of the state’s total population, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates.
Washington County’s $2.8 million jail expansion will add 96 beds, at least two-thirds of which would be taken by current prisoners, Mullendore said. The number of unauthorized immigrants housed in the facility will depend on fluctuation in the overall number of prisoners, he said.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office does look into the record and legal status of anyone accused of breaking the law — from committing violent crimes to traffic violations — and notifies ICE if there is reason to believe an offender is in the country illegally, Mullendore said.
ICE generally tells officers to release undocumented immigrants accused of minor violations, Mullendore said, addressing a complaint against 287(g).
Several flaws in the program, such as insufficient training of officers and racial profiling claims, were found in a March 2010 Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General review.
ICE reformed the program in response, increasing supervision of participating law enforcement agencies, prioritizing detention of unauthorized immigrants accused of committing serious crimes and other changes, according to agreements with participating agencies.
ICE now reviews civil rights laws and teaches multicultural communication to combat racial profiling.
Washington County doesn’t have many unauthorized immigrants to begin with, Mullendore said.
“Our problem is not as significant as Frederick County or some other places,” he said.
The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office’s 26 officers trained in the 287(g) program have processed about 600 unauthorized immigrants since the program’s official start two years ago, said spokeswoman Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, calling the program a success.
But CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights group, sued the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office last November over claims of civil rights violations and racial profiling. Both sides are now gathering information to use in a possible trial, according to CASA de Maryland spokesman Rodolfo Pastor.
“We are also supporting victims of the initiative” and giving legal advice, Pastor said. The organization thinks “Frederick County has gone too far,” he said.
The sheriff’s office does not process people solely on suspicion of being in the country without authorization, Bailey said.
“The goal is to apprehend those people who are committing crimes and are here illegally,” she said.
Frederick County Sheriff Charles Jenkins encourages other law enforcement agencies to get involved, Bailey said.
The Montgomery County Police Department considers the enforcement of immigration policy a federal responsibility. The department does not participate in the 287(g) program and has no plans to do so, police spokesman Cpl. Dan Friz said. Training officers in everyday duties and increasing police presence in the county are higher priorities, he said.
Help Save Maryland, an immigration-reform group, has called Montgomery County a “sanctuary community” for unauthorized immigrants.
The Baltimore County Police Department has looked into the 287(g) program, but will not participate in it, spokesman Lt. Robert McCullough said.
The department is instead considering ICE’s Secure Communities program, which ICE says will improve information-sharing between federal and local agencies and track unauthorized immigrants through biometrics, such as fingerprinting.
“We just think it’s a better option for our community,” McCullough said. The use of technology will allow officers to identify and track criminal “illegal aliens” apprehended in the community, which will eliminate repeat offenses, he said.
Deported immigrants re-entering the country using different identities is “a real problem” for law enforcement officers, McCullough said.
CASA de Maryland also opposes the Secure Communities program, citing the same concerns as the 287(g) program.
ICE plans to implement Secure Communities nationwide by 2013. Four Maryland counties — Prince George’s, Frederick, Queen Anne’s and St. Mary’s — already participate.