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Sunday, October 24, 2010

287(g) deportation program snags few felons, memos from feds show; Critics hit deportation program

By Nate Rau
October 24, 2010

Earlier this year, federal officials decided the Davidson County Sheriff's 287(g) program that screens the immigration status of incarcerated foreign nationals was targeting too many minor criminal offenders and not enough felons.

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall's controversial program is supposed to place a priority on screening foreign nationals who are accused of committing serious felonies, according to last year's revised 287(g) agreement between Metro and the federal government.

But internal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement memos obtained by The Tennessean show that Hall's program was screening more than twice as many people with minor offenses as those with crimes such as murder, robbery and rape. An ICE memo from April shows that 73 percent of those screened by 287(g) in Nashville during the latter part of 2009 were arrested for minor offenses, while just 13 percent had been arrested for serious crimes.

The question then becomes: Is 287(g) serving the intended purpose of targeting dangerous criminals given the large number of minor offenders screened by county jailers? Immigrant advocates and court filings in aggressive litigation targeting Hall's program say the program is not working as intended.

The 2009 figures are consistent with the track record of 287(g) in Nashville since the program was put in place in 2007, with 66 percent of those screened over the life of the program having only misdemeanor citations or arrests — not violent crimes or felonies. The program is an offshoot of federal immigration law that empowers local jails to act as extensions of ICE.

"By focusing on all these minor traffic offenders, it does take police officers off the street, and all these administrators to process it," said Gregg Ramos, a Nashville attorney and former member of the sheriff's 287(g) advisory council. "In the end I submit we're less safe."

Feds question screenings

ICE officials began asking questions this spring about the effectiveness of the Nashville program and its impact on violent crime.

In a July memo, ICE officials asked regional field officers to explain why nine different 287(g) programs, including Nashville, had such a disproportionate number of people screened for minor crimes. According to an audit that covered October through December of last year, 73 percent of those screened by 287(g) had been arrested for minor offenses. Just 13 percent were arrested for major felonies.

The disproportionate totals sounded alarm bells for federal officials, who just a year earlier had shifted the focus of 287(g) to prioritize "criminal aliens who are a threat to local communities," according to a separate ICE memo.

A second audit by ICE of Nashville's program from January through March of this year showed the numbers of those screened for minor crimes dropped to 36 percent.

The audit pointed out that the sheriff's only function in 287(g) is to check the immigration status of foreign-born prisoners and that the Metro police department is responsible for enforcing the law and making arrests. Hall would not address the memos, citing ongoing litigation in which the memos are exhibits. Metro police said the number of traffic stops this year is similar to 2009.

The series of ICE memos suggest federal officials were satisfied with the corrective action and that the Nashville program received no additional scrutiny.

Sheriff's data show the 2009 figures are more reflective of the performance of 287(g) through the years.

Since 287(g) was put into place in 2007, the Sheriff's office has screened the immigration status of 12,486 foreign nationals cited and arrested for everything from murder to fishing without a license, according to data obtained in an open records request by the newspaper.

Of those, more than 7,250 immigrants have been processed for removal because of Nashville's 287(g) program. The sheriff's office could not say how many of those processed for deportation came from misdemeanors or felony arrests.

According to the sheriff's office data, 66 percent of those screened through 287(g) since 2007 were arrested for misdemeanors, while 34 percent were arrested for a felony crime.

The crime that most frequently leads to being screened by 287(g) is driving without a license. Through September, 4,397 foreign-born prisoners initially arrested for driving without a license had their immigration status checked through 287(g), according to data provided by the sheriff's office.

Hall defends program

This past week, Hall defended the practice of screening everyone who comes through the jail, because doing so has led to deporting illegal immigrants with violent criminal pasts. He pointed to David Medina-Valasquez, who was arrested for driving without a license but had criminal convictions for crimes against children in California.

"If you said, only look at felony offenders, then (people like Medina-Valasquez) would not have been identified," Hall said.

"The point we're trying to make is, the charge seems fairly trivial," Hall added. "It's a question of, 'Why not just cite the person?' That's a police question. I don't know why he wasn't cited. But once he came to jail, this is what was discovered about him."

Hall dismissed the notion some immigrants are being deported for not having a driver's license.

"It is false to say that the only reason he was deported was because he had no driver's license," Hall said. "No, he was deported, because he had been deported before. He was arrested because he didn't have a license, and he didn't have any identification."

The sheriff would not answer any questions regarding the ICE memos because of the ongoing lawsuit from former inmate Juana Villegas. Villegas was nine months pregnant when she was detained by 287(g) in 2008, after being arrested for a traffic violation and driving without a license. She later gave birth while in sheriff's custody and then filed a lawsuit alleging she was mistreated.

But Hall did face questions about the high percentage of immigrants screened for minor crimes during his deposition for the Villegas case.

The sheriff, who was re-elected to a third term in August, said the purpose of 287(g) has always been to check the immigration status of every prisoner who enters the jail.

"So what happens to you has never been our decision," Hall said during his deposition for the Villegas lawsuit. "We are going to screen everybody."

Immigration advocates say 287(g) has missed its mark by not focusing strictly on violent criminals.

"There's plenty of people out there who the sheriff can concentrate on who are in fact dangerous offenders," Ramos said. "That alone will make this a much safer community."

Last year, Metro Council approved extending the 287(g) program until 2012.