Duval Sheriff's Program Hits Illegal Immigration; Advocates Fear Some Are Being Deported on Minor Offenses

Article excerpt

Byline: KATE HOWARD

Last month, a tough program rolled out across Florida that alerts the federal government every time an illegal immigrant with a criminal history is booked into jail.

But a far more aggressive program has been in play in Jacksonville for nearly two years, with more than 800 people processed for deportation by jail deputies authorized to enforce immigration law.

After being arrested in Duval County, suspects are fingerprinted and routinely asked two crucial questions: Where were you born? Of what country are you a citizen?

If the answer is "outside the United States" - or jail officials suspect it should've been - the path to deportation is set in motion. That concerns immigrant advocates, who say people guilty of driving without a license and other minor violations are being sent to their native countries, lumped in with violent criminals.

Instead of waiting for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to do research and make a decision, as they do with the new statewide program, Jacksonville police officers can start deportation proceedings.

The program, used in 70 jurisdictions across the country, has raised civil liberties concerns and fears of racial profiling, and many immigrant advocates say they have concerns about Jacksonville's program, too.

Sheriff John Rutherford started the little-known effort in 2008, saying he wanted to join the fight against illegal immigration, but sidestep the controversy the program has stirred in other cities.

He said he intended to target only repeat offenders or those deemed a public safety risk.

"This was not a program that was going to be used to just deport people out of Jacksonville," he said. "But I wanted to make it very clear that if you were violent in this community, or committing crimes in this community, we were going to do anything we could to deport you out of this community."

But the department's statistics tell a different story about the offenders actually being deported.

"The whole point was for local law enforcement help the immigration officials find the violent criminals and drug traffickers," Jacksonville immigration attorney Lacy Brinson said. "The effect is that it's targeting people who are law-abiding citizens, but for the fact they don't have a driver's license, because they can't fix their status."

Since the program began, 810 people have been processed to be forcibly returned to their native countries, Sheriff's Office statistics show.

About 500 of them have been already been fast-tracked home, after serving penance for whatever crime landed them in jail and getting released to immigration agents. The rest are behind bars as their families scramble to file paperwork on their behalf in hopes of obtaining relief from the courts.

A third of the detainees were jailed on felony charges, including murder, robbery, sex crimes and firearms offenses. But the rest were held for misdemeanors - with driving without a license accounting for 33 percent of those arrests.

Rutherford defended the program, saying anyone arrested on a misdemeanor and sent on to immigration agents had a criminal history. Of the 1,400-plus illegal immigrants screened since 2008, 516 people with no previous criminal history were allowed to leave the jail, records show.

But that doesn't mean they didn't get deported. ICE is still notified, and immigration attorneys say orders for voluntary deportation typically follows.

THE NEGRETE FAMILY

Joel Negrete, 28, sounds more like a Southern boy than a Mexican native.

He came to America when he was 3. Five years ago, he married Jacksonville native Victoria Negrete.

But an October 2008 traffic stop and an old warrant for missing a court date on a driver's license offense sent him to the Jacksonville jail.

Now the Negretes and their four children are living in a border town in Mexico. …

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