The Clark County Sheriff’s Office has applied to use a free federal program that a sheriff’s commander said Wednesday will improve the county’s system of verifying the citizenship status of inmates.
Cmdr. Mike Anderson told county commissioners six counties (Yakima, Franklin, Benton, Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pacific) in Washington use Secure Communities, a program launched in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The program has been in the news because of questions raised by a subcommittee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
A recently issued report by the task force said the program has had “unintended local impacts” and has gone beyond the goal of targeting serious, violent offenders or repeat immigration violators.
The task force recommends that Immigration and Customs Enforcement “reaffirm that the Secure Communities program’s highest priority is to identify and remove aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.”
The concerns brought up in the report were not mentioned at a work session Wednesday with commissioners, who all support using Secure Communities.
Anderson said he expects it will be implemented at the Clark County Jail within 60 days.
Anderson said the sheriff’s office does not enforce immigration laws, but does notify federal authorities when people who are in the country illegally are in custody. It is then up to ICE officers in Seattle to determine whether to put a federal immigration hold on an inmate.
Currently, everyone booked into the jail is fingerprinted and asked where they are born, Anderson told commissioners.
For foreign nationals, the county contacts the respective embassy.
Fingerprints are sent to the Washington State Patrol and suspects are assigned a state identification number; the information then goes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the person receives a federal ID number.
Using Secure Communities will automate the process, Anderson said, and in addition to checking people against state and federal databases, which helps verify criminal history, the person’s fingerprints will be checked against the ICE database.
That will help the county identify people who lied about their citizenship status, Anderson said.
While some people who entered the United States illegally might not be in the ICE database, people who have overstayed student or work visas would be found, as well as people who were rejected for visas or those who have been caught trying to enter the country, Anderson said.
He told commissioners that typically 7 to 8 percent of inmates are foreign nationals, and the majority of those inmates are in jail on drug charges. Currently there are 50 foreign nationals in the county jail, he said, and 31 of them have ICE holds.
He said the ones who don’t have ICE holds illustrate a common problem, which is Eastern Europeans who were born in a country that no longer exists.
ICE may choose to initiate deportation proceedings against people who have served their time in the Clark County Jail.
People who are convicted of a crime and sentenced to more than one year in custody are sent to the Department of Corrections to serve the sentence in a state facility; the state notifies ICE before releasing the prisoner.
Inmates with federal immigration holds are housed at a detention center in Seattle, Anderson said.
Secure Communities would be the second immigration-related program endorsed by county commissioners.
Commissioners already require bidders on public contracts worth $25,000 or more to prove they have signed up with E-Verify, a federal database that allows them to check the citizenship of their workers.
Commissioners also heard Wednesday about Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program, or SAVE, a federal program that helps social service agencies determine an applicant’s immigration status.
Vanessa Gaston, director of the Clark County Community Services department, told commissioners that the program duplicates the state’s efforts to verify immigration status, with the exception of housing.
And inquiring about citizenship is easier said than done, she said, because of the way the county administers rental assistance.
The county contracts with nonprofit organizations that are specifically exempt from a federal requirement to inquire about citizenship status.
Commissioners Tom Mielke and Marc Boldt asked if the county could tell the nonprofits to inquire about citizenship and were told by Gaston and Administrator Bill Barron they would check with the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office on whether they can require nonprofit organizations to make the inquiry.