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Wake sheriff defends immigration enforcement program

A recent congressional report questions whether the 287(g) immigration program is being used correctly. Sheriff Donnie Harrison says it is.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A congressional report released this month criticizes the way local and state police agencies enforce immigration laws, saying the program is not being used correctly and could lead to officers misusing their authority.

But Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says he believes 287(g) – the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's program that gives local law agencies access to federal immigration databases so they can identify illegal immigrants they have arrested – is doing exactly what it was intended to do.

Since last July, when it was introduced in Wake County, more than 1,400 people have been identified as illegal, Harrison said.

In a report last week, however, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found immigration officials did not clearly explain to officers how to use their arrest authority under the program, nor did they tell local officers that the program is meant for the pursuit of serious offenders.

Tony Asion, public safety director with the local Hispanic advocacy group El Pueblo, wants to see the program scrapped, saying many people who are being deported were charged with minor violations, not violent crimes.

"We had a gentleman, not too long ago, who got deported for fishing without a license, and they're calling him a criminal," Asion said. "That's not the intent of the program."

Harrison disagrees.

"That's their opinion. In my opinion, here in Wake County, it's doing exactly what it's intended to do," he said. "And that's take criminals off the streets."

Harrison says the sheriff's office does not target Hispanics, but that if they are arrested, their immigration status will be checked.

"When we catch someone, if we think they need to come to the jail, that's where they come. So why should I look at it any differently?" Harrison said. "That's the way we do business. That's the way we protect and serve the citizens. I'm extremely happy with the way the program is running right now."

The congressional report says the big question is whether the results are worth the $40 million required to fund the project.

While startup costs for the Wake County program totaled several hundred thousand dollars, Harrison says it costs a little more than $150,000 to run the program annually. Despite county budget problems, Harrison says 287(g) is one program he intends to keep.

As of October, 67 local and state law enforcement agencies in 23 states had signed agreements to participate in the 287(g) program, and more are on a waiting list.

Cumberland, Alamance and five other counties already participate in the program in North Carolina, and last year, more than 3,000 illegal immigrants were deported from the state.

The 13-year-old program, which carries the name of the section of immigration law where it is described, had one participant through 2002, but grew rapidly in 2007 and 2008, after Congress failed to pass immigration-reform bills.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered a review of several of her department's programs, including the 287(g) partnerships.

Last month, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law released a report criticizing the program, saying it leads to profiling. The authors, however, admitted they have no concrete evidence to prove their claim and that the study is based on anecdotal reports.


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