Local News

Program snagging more illegal immigrants than expected

Posted September 17, 2008 5:38 p.m. EDT
Updated September 17, 2008 7:15 p.m. EDT

— Since early July, 435 illegal immigrants have been identified in the Wake County Jail under a federal program designed to help local law enforcement authorities get a better handle on immigrants charged with crimes.

The numbers are higher than many federal officials predicted, but Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said he wasn't surprised to find illegal immigrants comprise 15 to 20 percent of his daily jail population. About 1,500 inmates are in the jail on an average day.

County detention officers began participating in the federal 287-G program three months ago.The program trains local officers to use federal data to determine the immigration status of people charged with crimes and to begin the deportation process for those found to be in the U.S. illegally.

Harrison and other sheriffs had expressed frustration at not knowing whether someone charged with a crime was in the country illegally because they didn't have access to federal immigration databases.

The uncertainty has led to several instances of an illegal immigrant being released from jail on one charge and subsequently being arrested in a second crime.

Hispanic advocacy groups have complained that the 287-G program is too far-reaching and aggressive toward immigrants.

"The fact that we have 15 to 20 percent in the jail raises a lot of questions for us," said Irene Godinez, advocacy director for El Pueblo. "How is (it) that such a significant portion of our population is being taken into the jails?"

Records obtained by WRAL News show 97 of the identified illegal immigrants were arrested on traffic violations. Another 106 were charged with drunken driving.

"Anybody that doesn't look like us – who isn't brown – could get off with a ticket," Godinez said. "If you're brown, you're taken in and eventually deported."

Harrison rejected claims his officers were profiling Hispanics.

"A lot of them are wanted – been here several times and been deported. Why should I turn my head on that kind of stuff," he said. "They can be critical all they want to, but if these people weren't violating the law, we wouldn't even see them."

Twelve detention officers help carry out the 287-G program in Wake County at an annual cost of about $540,000, as well as $90,000 in start-up costs.

Nearly half of the inmates identified as illegal immigrants have been transferred to federal detention centers.