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FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder says his department is not using racial profiling in a federal program that alerts immigration officers about jail prisoners.

The sheriff's office has participated in the federal program, known as 287(g), for more than 10 years. The program has been blamed for jail crowding, and the sheriff's office has been accused of targeting individuals who are arrested for minor offenses to be held for immigration violations and possible deportation.

Immigration enforcement

The 287(g) program is authorized under the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The Act authorized the director of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, permitting designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions. Currently, ICE has agreements with 78 law enforcement agencies in 20 states. In Arkansas, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office are the only participating agencies.

Source: Department of Homeland Security

Immigration review

Washington County Detention Center

January 2019

• 1,092 inmates were booked into the detention center.

• 40 inmates had information submitted to ICE.

• 20 inmates had immigration detainers placed on them.

February 2019

• 948 inmates were booked at the detention center.

• 29 inmates had information submitted to ICE.

• Nine inmates had immigration detainers placed on them. Source: Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

"It's become a point of consternation to me for some time," Helder said. "We're being accused of profiling or looking for reasons to arrest people who might be here illegally. That's not true."

Elizabeth Coger of Fayetteville questioned the county's participation in the program at a recent meeting where a proposed jail expansion was being discussed. She raised the question of holding people for federal immigration violations as a factor contributing to jail crowding.

Coger said having local authorities enforcing federal immigration laws diverts scarce resources away from local law enforcement needs. She also said the program harms the community.

"I think it's a terrible program," she said. "You're taking a father or mother, a son or a daughter, from a family. I've seen studies that indicate that sort of thing causes a lot of distrust in the community. Immigrants may be afraid to report crimes."

Coger said the county should let the judicial system take its normal course and, if someone is convicted of a serious offense and may be subject to immigration laws, the federal government can intervene at that point.

"Once they've had their due process, then they can be subject to immigration," Coger said.

In a report to the county's justices of the peace, Helder listed the criticisms and his responses as "Myth vs. Fact" and included some information on the charges against the people who were identified under the 287(g) program. Helder said federal law doesn't allow him to list the people by name.

Chief Deputy Jay Cantrell said the sheriff's office asks everyone booked into the jail the same set of questions. Employees who have completed special training for the 287(g) program review the responses, and if it appears that an inmate might be in the country illegally, they submit the information to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

That agency does its own review and decides whether an individual will have a "detainer" placed on him, he said. Having a detainer means that, once the person is eligible for release on local charges, immigration authorities have 48 hours to take him into custody.

Cantrell said the county typically has a small number of inmates with detainers on them at any given time. He said federal immigration authorities provide a bus two or three times a week to take prisoners who are otherwise eligible for release to federal detention facilities. Cantrell said the Washington County jail averages two or three such prisoners at a time.

"I've never seen it be more than four," he said.

In January, the county submitted 40 prisoners for review and 20 had detainers placed on them, according to the report. In February, the county submitted 29 prisoners for review and nine had detainers placed on them. According to Helder, county records put the number of individuals processed into the jail in January at 1,092, and in February the number was 948.

Of the 40 inmates reviewed in January, 22 were from Mexico; five were from the Marshall Islands; four were from El Salvador; three were from Honduras; and one each was from Cambodia, Ireland, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, Antigua and Micronesia.

Of the 29 prisoners reviewed in February, 10 were from the Marshall Islands; nine were from Mexico; two were from El Salvador; and one each was from the Bahamas, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Guatemala and Canada.

The charges listed in Helder's report on prisoners subject to review range from drug offenses to traffic violations and include burglary, aggravated assault on a family member, domestic battery, felony terroristic threatening, endangering the welfare of a minor and nonpayment of child support. One inmate was listed as having been previously deported, and another was held on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement re-entry charge.

Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway said he would "have no problem" releasing the same kind of information Helder is providing. Holloway said the program operates in essentially the same manner in both counties.

Maj. Bob Bersi, with the Benton County sheriff's office, said his office has not been tracking prisoners identified through the 287(g) program but will develop a model to mirror what Washington County has done.

Bersi said an initial review showed that the Benton County jail booked 1,508 prisoners in January and 30 were identified for review by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. That would be about 2 percent of the jail population, Bersi said.

Jon Comstock, a former circuit judge in Benton County, said he's interested in the 287(g) program as one part of a larger issue of jail crowding and judicial changes. Comstock said the state and the country need to evaluate why people are being incarcerated, weigh the costs and consider alternatives.

Metro on 04/14/2019

Print Headline: Washington County Sheriff defends immigration program

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