ICE: All of Atlanta area to get fingerprint checks within months

A federal fingerprint-sharing program aimed at deporting criminal illegal immigrants will be operating across all of metro Atlanta by the end of September, according to federal records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Forsyth County’s jail is set to join the “Secure Communities” program Dec. 14. Forty-six other Georgia counties -- including some of the state’s more populous ones -- are scheduled to join by the end of September. Among them are Coweta, Douglas, Fayette, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale.

The screenings are already taking place in Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Muscogee and Whitfield counties. All of Georgia’s 159 counties are expected to participate in the program by the end of September 2013.

Several of the state’s Republican congressmen have chafed at the pace of the program, which started in 2008. Those congressmen have pushed for it to go statewide faster in Georgia. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have indicated they can’t move faster because of limited manpower and other resources.

Without the Secure Communities program in place, law enforcement officials could unwittingly release illegal immigrants back into their communities after they have completed sentences for any crimes committed in the U.S.

Local jailers don’t have to do anything new to participate in the program. They are already fingerprinting people booked into their jails, and those prints are being checked against millions held in state and FBI databases. Those checks help jailers confirm identities and search for criminal records and arrest warrants.

Under the Secure Communities program, these fingerprints are checked against more held by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including those of people caught crossing the border illegally.

If matches are found, federal immigration officials could seek to deport inmates, but only after their criminal charges have been adjudicated and after they have completed sentences for any crimes committed in the U.S. Federal immigration officials say they are focusing first on deporting the most violent criminals, such as killers, rapists, robbers and kidnappers.

Local jailers have praised the fingerprint checks, saying they help prevent criminals from deceiving them with aliases. But critics have pointed to ICE’s own statistics, which show most of the more than 64,000 people deported through the program are nonviolent criminals and others who have not committed any crimes other than being in the country illegally.

In a Nov. 17 letter to seven Republican congressmen from Georgia, an ICE official outlined the schedule for rolling out the program across the state. The letter says the schedule is based on ICE’s ability to react to fingerprint matches within 24 hours, seven days a week.

“When considering when and where to deploy Secure Communities, in addition to considering high-risk jurisdictions, ICE must also consider its operational capacity,” said Elliot Williams, ICE’s assistant director for congressional relations.

Williams did not mention it in his letter, but ICE’s detention center in Stewart County was nearly full last month with about 1,900 detainees. The facility can hold up to about 2,000 people, according to ICE, but for only limited periods.

ICE officials said they have been rolling the program out across the nation incrementally, focusing first on higher-crime areas with criminal illegal immigrants. They said they base their decisions on a mix of U.S. census data, FBI crime statistics and some of ICE's own records.

The AJC reported last month that Hawaii is one of more than two dozen states that have fewer illegal immigrants than Georgia but are still getting plugged into the $200 million program, some at a faster pace. More than half of those states have lower violent crime rates than Georgia, including Virginia and West Virginia, which now do the fingerprint checks in all their counties.

An ICE spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that her agency hasn't done a study to determine whether there is a correlation between a state's illegal immigrant population and its crime rate. Sociologists, however, have published studies saying cities that have experienced increases in overall immigration -- both legal and illegal -- have seen their violent crime rates decrease.

Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta said he was not satisfied with the letter he got from ICE. He and six other GOP congressman from Georgia wrote ICE about the pace of its program in October. In their letter, they said they wanted the fingerprint checks available across the state as soon as possible because "doing so will improve public safety for all Georgians before 2013." Gingrey said he plans to follow up with Assistant Secretary for ICE John Morton.

“I will suggest to him that when the new Republican majority takes over [in Congress]," Gingrey said, “we will ask him and others to come and maybe explain their policy in regard to the Secure Communities initiative. ... We have a problem in Georgia, and this letter does not satisfy me.”

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