Sheriff's offices absorb new immigration duty

Sheriff's offices absorb new immigration duty

March 26th, 2011 by Perla Trevizo in News


Twenty-one out of 95 counties in Tennessee - 22 percent - are part of Secure Communities as of March 8.

• June 17, 2010: Knox

• June 22, 2010: Hamilton and Shelby

• Aug. 10, 2010: Davidson

• Dec. 28, 2010: Anderson, Bedford, Blount, Bradley, Carter, Coffee, Greene, Hamblen, Jefferson, Madison, McMinn, Obion, Roane, Sevier, Sullivan, Warren and Washington

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

A new state requirement that officials check whether people being booked into jail are in the country illegally hasn't made much of an impact so far, local law enforcement officials say.

Under the bill, which took effect Jan. 1, Tennessee's Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission developed a procedure for verification of citizenship status. It requires local sheriff's offices to ask two questions: What is your place of birth? Are you a citizen of the United States?

Based on the person's response, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office may be contacted to investigate.

"It's not that cumbersome," said Jeff Long, chairman of the legislative committee for the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association. "I don't think many sheriffs have complained about it."

But leaders of a state group that opposed the bill said they already can see how it's affecting local communities.

"It is affecting the community in a very negative way and destroying the public trust that the community has with law enforcement," said Remziya Suleyman, policy coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

There's no oversight to how the law is being implemented, she said.

Although ICE can order people held for up to 48 hours, they can be released after that if the agency fails to pick them up.

Suleyman said her group has heard of cases in Tennessee in which people are being held in local jails even after the ICE hold expires.

The two questions don't "get to the issue of how are people going to be treated, the issue of what we consider racial profiling," she said. "We are still completely [opposed to] the law."

But Jeff Knight, special projects coordinator for the Rhea County Sheriff's Office, said his officers treat everyone, regardless of their status, with respect.

"People who are here illegally are people just like anyone else and deserve respect," he said. "The sheriff does not tolerate us discriminating against these people, but we do process them and turn them over to ICE."

All in by 2013

Twenty-two percent of all Tennessee counties - including Bradley and Hamilton - are part of a federal program that helps identify those who are in the country illegally.

Secure Communities runs the fingerprints of everyone arrested and booked against FBI and Department of Homeland Security records. If fingerprints match federal records, ICE determines what to do based on the person's immigration status and criminal history and the severity of the crime.

All of Tennessee's counties are expected to be part of this program by 2013.

Several years ago, the Bradley County Sheriff's Office also joined ICE's Criminal Alien Program, which facilitates information sharing between ICE and the department.

None of the local counties contacted, including Rhea, Marion and Bradley, could provide data on exactly how many people in the country illegally are referred to ICE through their jails.

Tim Gobble, who oversees the Hamilton County Jail, said ICE has picked up 11 people since January, but he suspects the jail has booked many others who are in the country illegally.

He said jail officials are conducting a review after a Chattanooga Times Free Press inquiry.

In Rhea County, Knight said most people referred to ICE are not picked up unless they have committed serious crimes or have been deported previously.

"If [ICE doesn't] choose to place them into custody and place a hold on them, we process them like any citizen, and if they pay a fine or make bond, we have to release them like anyone else," he said.

But he said he understands ICE also has limited resources.

The ice mission

Temple Black, spokesman for ICE, said the agency has been clear about its mission: "To identify and remove criminal aliens who pose the greatest threat to our communities," he wrote in an e-mail.

"We stand ready to receive any information provided to us from law enforcement in Tennessee," he wrote. "As always, we will prioritize our actions on criminal offenders and national security threats."

Marion County Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said the new mandate hasn't been a problem because few illegal residents are brought to the jail. But if that changes, he said, he can see how the rule could burden his staff because it could get time-consuming.

Long said tighter police budgets could mean law enforcement officials are having to do more with less.

"Budgets are tight, manpower is tight and here we are with additional programs," he said. "If they don't have funding, it's going to be tough for most law enforcement agencies in the state to do much enforcement without additional personnel.

"All of us are sworn by oath to uphold the law, and we are going to do it either way that is drafted, either left up to the federal [government] and us cooperating with them or we will do our best to enforce it if it's a state law," he said.