COVINGTON -- The Newton County Sheriff's Office has recently signed on to participate in the federal Secure Communities program, sponsored by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security.
"It enhances our ability to identify any criminal through networking with ICE and Homeland Security," said Newton County Detention Center Capt. Sammy Banks. "The Secure Communities system identified (through fingerprints) any criminal aliens who have committed crimes anywhere in the U.S. and if they are tied in with terrorism. It will give you a hit ... and will eliminate releasing a dangerous person back into the area."
Banks said the system made it possible to apprehend and remove dangerous criminals from the United States in a way that has not been possible previously.
According to Banks, often illegal aliens give false data as to who they are and where they are from, as well as false documents such as drivers licenses and green cards. Sometimes they were out of jail before the verification of their identity was returned.
Now, the response time in verifying the information has been accelerated with the new Live Scan equipment that enables prints to be compared electronically.
Banks said at the point it is determined a prisoner has broken a federal immigration law, ICE places a hold on the inmate, preventing their release from incarceration.
"ICE or Homeland Security will come to our facility and verify who the person is, remove him from our facility and process him through the federal side," Banks said. "ICE has expert technology and people who speak their language. They can tell us if the prisoner is not telling us the truth, and if that's the case, they will transfer them to the ICE holding center in Fulton County."
The program has drawn fire nationwide, with detractors alleging it encourages profiling and that it has led to deportations of thousands of illegal immigrants who had no criminal records.
Covington/Newton County Special Investigations Unit Commander Philip Bradford said previously illegal aliens who have been arrested for minor offenses such as driving without a license have just paid the fine and moved on with their lives with no fear of further prosecution. Now that ICE is taking a stronger stance, they realize they are taking a chance of being deported.
CPD Evidence Technician Joe Mobley, who is assigned to SIU, often translates for law enforcement officers when they deal with Spanish-speaking individuals. Mobley said the new program is having an impact.
"Hispanics in the area are very aware that now the Newton jail is working closely with ICE and there is definitely uncertainty among that community as to whether they are going to stay in the area," he said. "I already know of many that have moved or are planning to move. I realize this enforcement has to be done; however, at some point there will be some evidence of this affecting the local economy in a negative way as these people leave and they are no longer spending money locally."
Banks said Sheriff Ezell Brown has been closely working with ICE and Homeland Security since January 2009, and last week the NCSO became one of the first three in this area to participate in the Secure Communities initiative. The other two departments are in Walton and Barrow counties.