The Harford County sheriff's office has joined a controversial federal program to check the immigration status of the people it takes into custody.
The sheriff's office is one of fewer than three dozen local law enforcement agencies around the country — and only the second in Maryland — to sign on to the program operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security, will train and supervise 10 deputies at the county's detention center in Bel Air to screen for undocumented immigrants who may have committed serious crimes.
"What we're going to do is, screen every single individual that comes into the detention center, after our deputies are trained, and identify those who are here illegally and further victimizing the community," Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said.
A similar arrangement has been in place in Frederick County since 2008.
Harford County joins the controversial program, which has been challenged in court in Frederick and around the country, during a divisive presidential campaign in which immigration has been a major issue. Republican nominee Donald J. Trump has vowed to build a wall along the Mexican border and bar foreign Muslims from entering the country. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has said she would push to increase pathways to citizenship within her first 100 days in office.
The 287(g) agreement signed by Harford County last week is one of several ways ICE prevails upon local law enforcement agencies to help it enforce federal immigration law. Officials in Anne Arundel County are negotiating with ICE to hold undocumented immigrants at its Ordnance Road Correctional Center in Glen Burnie.
Advocates for immigrants say such cooperation endangers undocumented immigrants who pose no threat to the community. They say immigrants who fear that police will check their status will be less likely to call them in times of need.
Elizabeth Alex, Baltimore regional director for CASA, called Harford's move "election-year politics," and an attempt "to balance the county's books on the backs of black and brown people."
Officials in both Frederick and Anne Arundel counties have touted the revenue their deals with ICE would bring. ICE reimburses local governments for detaining people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Gahler, a Republican who campaigned for sheriff in part on enforcing immigration laws, said he is only trying to catch the most dangerous criminals who are in the country illegally.
"We are looking for the worst offenders who are here victimizing our citizens here in Harford County," Gahler said. "If they don't fall within our priorities as a public safety threat, it's somebody we're not interested in through this program."
ICE uses 287(g) to boost its manpower across the country. The agency has 6,000 officers to confront millions of undocumented immigrants, said Tom Homan, executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations.
"For every alien that is captured due to this program, it's one less alien that is going to commit a crime in this community," he said.
The Harford sheriff's office applied to the program and was accepted because it has "an excellent reputation for responsible law enforcement," said Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokeswoman. It is one of 33 agencies around the country in the program, ICE says.
In April, the ACLU asked ICE to reject Harford's application because the county had what it called a "comparatively high" number of complaints over civil rights violations and police misconduct.
Under 287(g), officials say, deputies will screen people who have been arrested when they first come into the local jail. Anyone who is in the country illegally and has committed a crime that threatens public safety, national security or border security is turned over to federal immigration authorities.
That's a narrower application of the program than is permitted under federal law. The program allows ICE to train local agencies to screen the immigration status of offenders at any point in day-to-day law enforcement.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff's department said she could not immediately answer a question about why the program was being limited to the county jail.
In Frederick County, sheriffs deputies have detained more than 1,400 people under 287(g) since 2008, ICE said.
At first, both patrol officers and corrections officers were trained to investigate possible immigration violations, but the approach in 2012 was narrowed to focus on the county jail, according to the Frederick News-Post.
About half of the people Frederick deputies handed over to ICE last year were from El Salvador, according to the sheriff's office. Nineteen percent were from Mexico, 13 percent from Honduras and the rest from Guatemala, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
In previous years, the county has turned over citizens of Kenya, Uganda, Bulgaria, China, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins has said the program is needed to stop violent gangs from the Washington area from spreading northward.
The county has detained 176 people who have been charged with a felony and 95 who are suspected or known gang members or who have been trained in fighting or military service, according to ICE.
Jenkins has said the program has added to budget surpluses at a time of fiscal crisis for the county. The program generated more than $9.7 million in jail housing reimbursements that were deposited into the county treasury, he wrote in the Frederick News-Post as he ran for re-election in 2014.
A spokeswoman for the county sheriff's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Frederick County's program is one of many around the country to face criticism and legal challenge.
A Salvadoran woman sued the county under federal civil rights law in 2009. She alleged that county deputies asked her for identification in October 2008 as she ate lunch alone near a pond in Frederick and referred her to authorities for possible deportation. The case is still pending, according to federal court records.
The Los Angeles County sheriff's office stopped participating in 287(g) last year. The office settled a claim the ACLU filed on behalf of a California man who was detained under the program but is a U.S. citizen. His lawyers said the case amounted to racial profiling.
As Harford County joined the program last week, officials said it should not stir opposition.
"Immigration is a very emotional, controversial subject right now, we all know that — it's probably the biggest issue facing this country right now," Homan said. "Something that isn't controversial is protecting public safety."