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Harford sheriff wants to join federal program to screen for illegal aliens at jail

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler wants his agency to join a federal program that will provide better screening of the immigration status of people arrested in the county and processed through the local detention center.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler wants his agency to join a federal program that will provide better screening of the immigration status of people arrested in the county and processed through the local detention center. (AEGIS FILE PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County's sheriff is seeking federal authority and aid to conduct a more comprehensive review of the immigration status of people arrested in the county and booked at the local detention center.

According to an announcement released Tuesday, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler has sent an official request to the Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to initiate the Harford County Sheriff's Office's participation in the Delegation of Authority Program, also known as 287(g), under the Immigration and Naturalization Act.

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"This partnership with the Federal Government provides deputies with the tools and authority necessary to assist in enforcing immigration laws and ensuring that individuals who commit crimes and are in this country illegally are turned over to federal authorities for deportation, once they fulfill their obligation to the State of Maryland," the announcement states. "The 287(g) program allows our agency to enter into a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under a joint memorandum of agreement, to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within Harford County."

In the announcement, Gahler said participation in the federal program "will benefit the citizens of Harford County and should be considered a priority."

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Cristie Kahler, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office, said the request "is one more program to be proactive in the county to protect our citizens."

The sheriff is seeking federal training for 10 correctional officers, who would in turn screen every person arrested in the county and processed through the Harford County Detention Center for his or her immigration status, Erik Robey, director of legislative and community affairs for the Sheriff's Office, said.

Robey said the screening process is uniform and allows the local officers "to unquestionably identify illegal immigrants." In addition to training the designated correctional officers, the program will provide computer software and hardware and linkups with federal databases, he said.

Robey said the current screening systems in place in Harford and most local jails rely on "self-reporting" of those arrested, who are asked their place of birth and/or country of origin. The federal screening system is far more comprehensive, he said.

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According to the Sheriff's Office, only one Maryland county, Frederick, participates in a 287(a) delegation of authority program. Robey said Gahler and other top officials in the Harford Sheriff's Office recently visited the Frederick County Detention Center to learn more about the program and its benefits.

Robey said Frederick has been in the program for approximately eight years and during that time has screened approximately 400 people who were in the United States illegally. The Frederick jail also has an ICE field office, he said.

As to the program's benefits, Robey gave an example of a person who is the county illegally being arrested for drunk driving in Harford County. Upon a conviction, he said, that person would still serve a sentence locally but once it is completed, they would be turned over to ICE for deportation or other proceedings.

"The benefit of the program is it puts immigration and customs enforcement in the hands of the locals," Robey said. "It gives our people the training, the computers and other tools necessary to identify illegal immigrants who come through our detention center beyond a shadow of a doubt."

Robey said the 10 correctional officers who volunteer for the federal training and are selected and complete it would work in the screening program as secondary assignments to their regular duties at the detention center.

He also said participation in the program will not result in the detention center taking inmates with immigration detainers from other counties.

"This is only to screen people who are arrested in our county by the Sheriff's Office, or the police in Bel Air, Aberdeen or Havre de Grace," he said.

The Harford Sheriff's Office still must be accepted for 287(g) status by ICE, Robey said, adding that they have every expectation of meeting the necessary requirements.

With regard to any potential out-of-pocket costs, Robey said they don't expect there to be any; however, the respective responsibilities of the Sheriff's Office and ICE will be spelled out in a memorandum of agreement once the agency is accepted into the federal program.

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