ICE: Local police make tracking illegals easier

CONYERS - A member of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement team told the Conyers Rotary Club on Thursday that cooperation between federal and local law enforcement agencies is improving, making it easier to track illegal immigrants.

Ken Smith, special agent in charge of the Atlanta office of ICE, described for Rotary members the agency's emphasis on targeting gang members in the state and explained that their success depended upon participation of local police and county sheriffs' offices.

Operation Community Shield, conducted last week by ICE members, resulted in the arrest of more than 100 gang members and associates living in metro Atlanta, Savannah, Dalton and Albany. Leaders of what was described as "trans-national gangs" were arrested in the sweep, many of whom had illegaly re-entered the country after having been deported on federal charges. Others had outstanding arrest warrants on various state and federal charges, Smith said.

The Rockdale County Sheriff's Office was among the 28 law enforcement agencies that participated in the sweep by providing officers.

Smith called trans-national gangs "a serious public safety threat" that will require closer work with state and local agencies.

"In many instances, it is difficult for local law enforcement agencies to press charges against gang members because they pretty much have to catch them in the act of a crime," Smith said. "We have some other tools on the federal level by which we can go after them for illegal entry into this country."

Lack of sufficient manpower is a stumbling block that hinders ICE from responding to all deportation calls from local authorities. Smith said it's important to understand that an individual's legal status has to be determined, and that is sometimes unclear.

However, a national database system being developed should soon make it easier to track illegal immigrants and streamline deportation on the federal level, he said.

Smith said he would like to see a national immigration database that local law enforcement agencies could access and enter information on individuals known to be in the country illegally at the time of arrest.

That information would then follow an individual and could be called up by ICE, the U.S. Border Patrol or other law enforcement agencies.

ICE, a division of the federal Department of Homeland Security, has a full-time task force dedicated to illegal immigration in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties.

Conyers Police Chief David Cathcart said he would like the Conyers Police Department to participate with ICE. Even though illegal immigration is not as big an issue here as it is in other counties, Cathcart said the experience would be valuable for his department. He said it would be similar to current cooporation the CPD engages in with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Adminstration.

"You want to have one or two guys go up there and get that experience and create a contact with federal officials, so that when we do have a big issue in that area come up, we will have that resource available," the chief said.

Asked if the closer relationship with federal immigration officials could impact contacts made with the local Latino community, Cathcart said he believed it would not.

"We worked hard to develop contacts there where people get comfortable calling us to report crimes, and that's important," he said. "But sometimes they get too comfortable and take advantage of the law as much as the legal residents, so it's an up and down situation."

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.