Overcrowded Jails Follow Immigration Crackdown
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a special "Mocha Moms" on kids and cops, what the Mochas teach their kids about the police and what police officers want kids to know. And the money coach on how the credit crunch is even affecting people with good credit.
But first, from time to time we like to check in on stories we've been following, and we've been trying to keep tabs on how cities and towns are dealing with the issue of immigration, especially illegal immigration. In Prince William County, Virginia, just outside of Washington, county officials decided that local police should assist federal immigration officials by checking the immigration status of suspects whom they believe are in the country illegally.
It sounds simple, but it turns out it isn't. Detention facilities are overcrowded and advocates are complaining that their clients are being held too long on minor charges, or otherwise slipping through the cracks. Here to tell us more about this are Corey Stewart, he's chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and Elinor Tesfamariam, she's an immigration lawyer representing some of the undocumented immigrants in the county. Welcome to you both. Thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. ELINOR TESFAMARIAM (Immigration Lawyer): Thank you.
Mr. COREY STEWART (Chairman, Prince William County Board of Supervisors): Thank you.
MARTIN: Chairman Stewart, as I recall, you are a strong supporter of this program, the county participating in a program to deputize local police to assist immigration and custom's enforcement or ICE. If you could just remind folks who perhaps aren't aware of what the impetus for this program was and why you supported it so strongly.
Mr. STEWART: Well, the impetus and the reason for the program is the community had been suffering several problems as a result of illegal immigration in the community, especially overcrowding of homes, general deterioration of those communities that were mostly affected, longer lines, much longer lines at hospital emergency rooms, a huge increase in the number of non English speaking students and the impact on our schools, and finally a significant portion of decline in the community that was attributable to illegal immigrants.
MARTIN: So this was part of a, sort of, an overall package of proposals to deny certain services to illegal immigrants. Would you also say that part of the intention was to get illegal immigrants to leave?
Mr. STEWART: Well, clearly the intention of the program was to get illegal immigrants to leave the community. But especially what we wanted to do, the law enforcement portion of the program was the most important, the public safety aspect of targeting those illegal immigrants who were committing crimes. We didn't know initially what percentage of our jail population was illegal. We ultimately determined that it was 21 percent of our jail population. It was those illegal immigrants who posed a threat to the community that we were most concerned about.
MARTIN: How do you think it's working so far? I think the program's been in place since, what, March 1?
Mr. STEWART: Well there's two parts of the program, one is a jail portion and one is the police portion. The jail - the police portion is only about a month old. That is working well, but it's far too early, I think, to judge it. The jail portion is working extremely well. We've already handed over to the federal authorities 650 prisoners who are illegal aliens who've committed crimes and in some cases very serious crimes. And now instead of being released back into the community after they serve their sentences, they'll be deported.
MARTIN: Jail Board Chairman Patrick Hurd was not able to join us today, but he sent you and, also, Julie Myers, who is the head of ICE, a letter recently saying that his staff is overwhelmed, but that by bringing in this sort of number of suspects that the facility itself is overwhelmed and that his employees are overwhelmed. How do you respond to that?
Mr. STEWART: Well, actually the ICE has since then stepped up to the plate and they've picked up, just in the last couple of days, 60 prisoners that were part of the backlog. And that backlog of prisoners has now been virtually eliminated. We still are working our jail staff overtime in order to accomplish the program but we expect to address that program and that problem in the upcoming fiscal year.
MARTIN: Elinor, as an immigration lawyer, you work with clients who are undocumented as well as documented. What effects have you seen of this new policy?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Well, basically ICE has taken a very long time to pick up individuals and there is a delay within the jail. The time the jail officials take to inform ICE officers when an individual is done serving time, it is way more than 48 hours. I have about - I have had three clients within the past two weeks where they completed their sentence and it has taken over 30 days, some 25 days, and more than a month, for ICE officials to realize these individuals have completed their sentence and to be in ICE custody officially. I had to actually contact the ICE office in Fairfax and say, look, I have a guy here at the Manassas Adult Detention Center, as well as Winchester, he has an A number. And ICE officials are, like, well, he's not in our system. And I have to inform them, look, he's been done. He's been sitting waiting for you guys to pick him up.
MARTIN: Is this really a big deal though? I mean, it seems to me that the issue is that these individuals would be detained somewhere. So is there really a big difference if they're detained in Prince William County versus whether they're detained in a federal facility?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Oh, there's a huge difference. If individuals are not at the Manassas Detention Center, usually they are three and a half hours to four hours away, which is very difficult for attorneys or even family members to go visit them. It delays the process. And the problem that I've been facing the past week is they are not showing up at the Fairfax office's system.
MARTIN: They're literally disappearing from the system.
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Yeah. They are not there. So attorneys are taking the time to inform ICE, hey, I have a guy here, can you please pay attention to him. And yeah, ICE officials, they've been very good, but it's not fair. It's, you know, we're looking at several violations of individuals' rights.
MARTIN: Why are these violations of human rights or individual rights or civil rights?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: According to this 287G agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the local state officials, ICE officials are supposed to pick up individuals within 48 hours after an individual serves. Unlawful detention is a violation of individuals' rights.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Elinor Tesfamarian, she's an immigration lawyer, and Corey Steward, he's the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. And we're talking about how Prince William County's, sort of, new program of asking local police to enforce, help enforce immigration law, is working out. Corey Steward, what do you say to that? I mean, there are those who look at this example as, sort of, part and parcel of why it doesn't make sense for local jurisdictions to try to enforce federal immigration law. They say you simply don't have the resources to do it.
Mr. STEWART: Well, the problem is that the federal government doesn't have the resources to do it. There are somewhere between 12 and 20 million illegal aliens across the United States. There are only a few thousand immigration customs enforcement inside the U.S. that are doing interior border protection. Without the help of the 750,000 local law enforcement agents across the country, the federal government will never be able to deal with this problem effectively. And the important thing here is that it's the local law enforcement officials who have the contact with the illegal immigrants, especially those who are committing the crimes, and the federal government needs to be able to leverage that manpower and those resources in order to target the illegals who are committing crimes. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're being cooperative and ICE has been very appreciative of all our efforts. I think...
MARTIN: I'm sorry, can I just ask you, what kinds of crimes are these people committing that are being picked up in this - in the course of this program so far?
Mr. STEWART: Well, so far there's been a whole range of crimes ranging from murder to - all the way down to DUI. But in all cases they've committed what I would consider fairly serious crimes.
MARTIN: Well, Elinor, is that your experience?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Most of my clients have been detained for driving with a suspended license or driving without a license.
MARTIN: Corey Stewart, what do you say to Elinor's point that there are - these are human rights or civil rights violations? That to detain people without, sort of, documenting them and without - to, sort of, just allow them to disappear into the system this way is a violation of the law and of civil and human rights. What do you say to that?
Mr. STEWART: Well, I mean, you know, she's right, of course, that, you know, when we stop somebody and we check their immigration status we cannot detain them for an unreasonable length of time. And, you know, we've done everything we can do to make sure that the process works as smooth as possible. And we don't believe, at this point, that the detentions are any longer than are permitted under federal law.
MARTIN: And, Elinor, what do you say to Mr. Steward who says that persons who are here illegally, who are breaking the law, should expect a negative consequence, that they should be detained?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Personally, and I think this belief is shared by a lot of immigration attorneys, enforcement of immigration law should be dealt at the federal level, not at the local or state level because you cannot implement this type of law without racially profiling individuals.
MARTIN: Do you have some evidence of that?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Yes. I do have several clients that were stopped for passing a red light or stop light, I mean a stop sign. And their immigration status was questioned. And usually, language has been used as a factor to determine whether an individual has been - I mean, is illegal or not. And Chief Dean has stated several times that language could be a factor as part of the, you know, the second step of the probable cause to determine if an individual is an illegal immigrant.
MARTIN: But can you tell us whether these people were in fact undocumented or not?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Yeah.
MARTIN: They were undocumented.
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: They were undocumented. Yeah.
MARTIN: They were? But wouldn't that be an argument for why the system, in fact, works?
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: The system does not work because it is violating individual civil rights. This cannot work without racially profiling. So even though there are good intentions trying to fix the immigration law, our position is it should not be dealt at a local level and especially should not be left to individuals who have personal biases to specific racial groups.
MARTIN: Mr. Stewart, if, finally, we only have about a minute left, what do you say to that? Elinor was saying that the temptation to profile is just too great. It's just - there's just too much latitude being given to individuals with too little training that racial profiling is almost unavoidable. What do you say?
Mr. STEWART: Well, you know, it's something that - she's right that we have to be very careful. And as we implement the program we have to make absolutely certain that we're not racially profiling or doing any other discriminatory behavior. We have given extra protection to - extra training to our police officers, the 550 members of our police force, to make sure that that's not happening. And we're taking, you know - it's very important to the long term success that we're doing this in a humane way, in a fair way, and that we're not racially profiling. So we're doing everything we possibly can do to avoid that.
MARTIN: Corey Stewart is chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Elinor Tesfamarian is an immigration lawyer and also a managing member of the Immigration and Human Rights Law Group. Elinor was here in our Washington studio and Corey Steward joined us on the phone. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Ms. TESFAMARIAM: Thank you.
Mr. STEWART: Thank you.
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