LV, federal agencies join forces

If you were born in another country and are arrested by Las Vegas police, your name will be checked against a federal database.

And if it is found that you are in the country illegally, your name will be forwarded to federal immigration officials and you could be deported.

That’s how Sheriff Doug Gillespie on Wednesday explained a soon-to-be launched arrangement that the Metropolitan Police Department has with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to handle those suspected of committing crimes.

But while the new approach to handling inmates at the Clark County Detention Center was viewed cautiously by some local Hispanic and civil rights groups, the sheriff assured critics multiple times at a news conference that the new policy will not extend to beat officers on the street.

"This is a jail-based program," Gillespie said. "Police officers out on the streets are not participating in this process."

The program, expected to begin in a few weeks, will not be retroactive, meaning only foreign-born inmates who have been arrested after the program is up and running will be screened through the federal software.

But U.S. citizens who were born in another country also will be subject to screening, another police official said.

Gillespie also tried to quell concerns from residents and civil rights groups that the new program will target Hispanics, might lead to racial profiling and could hinder the relationship between immigrant communities and police.

"We are not interested in disrupting the lives of law-abiding individuals," Gillespie said. "People who report crimes are not going to be reported to immigration. People who are victims of crimes will not be reported to immigration. We’re focusing on the criminal element."

Gillespie said the program’s goal is to reduce the number of violent offenders in the community. Officials expect it to substantially increase the number of deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Under the so-called 287 (g) partnership, the first of its kind in Nevada, 10 specially trained jail officers will be allowed to start possible deportation proceedings of foreign-born inmates. The officers will not receive extra pay for being involved in the program.

Inmates who are found to be undocumented will be turned over to immigration officials after their charges have been settled at local court, police and ICE officials said.

Police said 19 percent to 22 percent of the county jail’s estimated 3,300 inmates are foreign-born. About 160 suspects are processed on a busy day.

Steven Branch, a field office director for ICE detention and removal operations in Nevada, said inmates who have been identified as foreign born and whose citizenship is in question could be deported even if they are acquitted in the courts.

"We will pursue those cases," Branch said. "They’ll have every opportunity in court as the law allows to present their case. The immigration judge will render a decision as to the outcome."

Branch and Gillespie said jail officials already ask inmates whether they were born in the United States. Branch said ICE officials visit the jail about once a week and focus on the most serious criminals who have been identified as foreign-born.

Although Gillespie said street officers would not be involved in the new program, some advocates and leaders in the Hispanic community were still wary of possible outcomes.

"We’re concerned that an officer may use the wrong criteria to stop someone," said Xavier Rivas, the host of a Spanish-language radio talk show on KRLV-AM, 1340. "We’re concerned it (the agreement) isn’t going to be used correctly."

But Rivas, who plans to dedicate his show today at 3 p.m. to discuss the partnership, said he supports it in principle.

"Anyone who breaks the law and is illegally in the country should be punished and deported," he said.

Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, also said he supported the partnership.

"If you do the crime, you have to do the time," he said. "If you are here without proper documentation and violate the law … you should suffer the consequences."

Romero said Gillespie eased some of his worries at Wednesday’s news conference when the sheriff repeatedly emphasized that only those who commit a crime serious enough to land them in jail would be run through the database.

Still, he worries about "the guy who’s been here 20 years" and gets arrested for forgetting to pay a parking ticket.

Gillespie said 75 percent of inmates at the jail are in there for gross misdemeanors and felonies. But he acknowledged Romero’s concern.

"Are we going to have instances that arise that people may question what we’re doing? No doubt," he said. "When that happens my door will not be closed."

Kristen Telfer, president of Americans4America, a local anti-illegal-immigration group, said concerns about the partnership are overblown.

"If people aren’t breaking laws and they’re not criminals, they don’t have anything to worry about," she said.

Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, called the partnership "a bad policy."

Peck said it could discourage immigrants from reporting crimes and witnesses from coming forward to aid in prosecution.

The ACLU is concerned that the Police Department doesn’t have a contingency plan in place in case the partnership turns out to be problematic.

Branch said the Police Department will be one of 63 agencies across the nation involved in the program. Since 2006, more than 75,000 criminals have been identified through the program, he said.

Police Capt. John Donahue, who is involved in the program, said he did not know how much program will cost ICE, but the training, software and hardware was all paid for by the agency.

He said 10 officers trained for a month in Charleston, S.C., and studied a college-level curriculum in subjects such as immigration law and criminal law in order to train for the program. Five of these officers also speak Spanish.

They also will receive continuous field training, working with the software at Las Vegas ICE offices, Branch said.

Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638.

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