Frederick County opts to help federal immigration officials

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins explains the 287g program that allows law enforcement to partner with ICE in certain situations, and how the Maryland Trust Act could potentially cause issues with the program. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

When people are booked at Frederick County's jail, they're handed a form asking a series of questions, such as whether they're on medication or experiencing any pain.

It's a standard list used in many jails and booking centers, but with two additions:


What country were you born in?

What country are you a citizen or national of?


The answers to those can trigger a process unique in Maryland to Frederick County. Correctional officers trained by the federal government open an investigation into whether the arrestee is in the country illegally. If so, the officer alerts an on-site federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, who can begin immigration proceedings against them.

Frederick is one of about three-dozen counties in the nation participating in the program — known as 287(g), for the section of federal law that authorizes it. The program has been thrust into the spotlight as President Trump ramps up immigration enforcement and Democrats push back with attempts to stop programs such as 287(g).

"I think people tend to think of the 287(g) program as something bad," said Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who's operated the program in his jail's central booking center for eight years. He maintains it is an important tool to improve safety locally while helping address illegal immigration.

But others say it's an unnecessary foray by local governments into a federal issue, one that might sweep even minor offenders into federal immigration court or cause people to be held longer in local jails, even if they have posted bail or completed their sentence.


President Trump has made immigration enforcement a key focus of his administration — he plans to extend the border wall with Mexico and has pledged to deport more immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Trump has signaled he wants more counties to join 287(g), and there are indications he might revive a part of the program that links local police officers and sheriffs with federal immigration agents carrying out enforcement actions in communities.

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant rights group CASA support getting rid of the jail screening programs, saying they could sow fear among immigrants that they'll be deported if they report crimes or ask the police for help.

"People are living under a veil of terror in Maryland and the rest of the country because of the Trump administration," said Kimberley Propeack, politics and communications director for CASA.

While some aim to end the jail programs, other Maryland counties are gearing up to join Frederick County in helping immigration authorities.

Harford County's jail is preparing to participate in the 287(g) program this year. Anne Arundel County has applied to participate, as well.

"I want all criminals off the street, if I had my way. This is one more step to take for people who are committing crimes against our citizens," said Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler, a Republican elected in 2014.

Gahler emphasized that the jail will only screen people who have been arrested — which means there is probable cause to believe they committed a crime.

"We are just screening those offenders who are coming into the detention center," he said.

A bill considered in Annapolis would have barred local and state governments from using their resources to assist immigration officials, but it was watered down. The revised measure allows jail programs to continue, though officials could hold people solely for immigration reasons only if a judge has signed a warrant.

Even with that change, Gov. Larry Hogan has promised a veto if the bill reaches his desk. Not cooperating with federal authorities "is a big part of the problem" when it comes to illegal immigration, the Republican governor said Friday.

Del. Marice Morales, who introduced the legislation, argues that police and correctional officers have enough tools to protect public safety and do not need to get involved in immigration matters.

"You don't really need 287(g) to get violent offenders off the street," said Morales, a Montgomery County Democrat.

In Frederick County, Jenkins maintains his program has found people arrested of serious and violent crimes who were also in violation of immigration laws.

Since 2008, jail officials have investigated the immigration status of 2,228 arrestees who said they were not born in the United States or were not U.S. Citizens. Of those, 1,444 were referred to ICE for possible action, according to data provided by Jenkins.

Arrestees who are waiting for their immigration status to be checked are kept in a separate part of the jail that looks indistinguishable from the rest of the facility, save for a homemade ICE seal on the wall.

A program supervisor — employed by ICE and assigned to the jail — makes the call on whether to proceed with an immigration case.

Last year, the program identified an MS-13 gang member charged with attempted murder, two people charged with second-degree rape and others charged with distributing heroin, human trafficking and burglary, Jenkins said.

Officials said that ICE often declines to take action if the person arrested is a low priority. For example, a person who has a medical condition, is nursing a child or is victim of a crime might not be sent to immigration court. "That's 100 percent the ICE supervisor's call," said Sgt. David Green, supervisor of special operations in the Frederick County jail.

In other cases, trained correctional officers quickly figure out that an arrestee is in the country legally. Green said that often happens before the arrestee has their bail review hearing on local charges.

Three times, officers have informed arrestees who thought they were here illegally that they, in fact, had legal status, Jenkins said. He emphasized that the work is done only in the jail and does not involve sheriff's deputies who patrol in the community.

The county sheriff's office separately is being sued by Roxana Orellana Santos, a woman from El Salvador who said she was improperly arrested on an immigration warrant while eating a sandwich outside her work in 2008.

Jenkins, a Republican elected in 2006, said his deputies on patrol do not ask people about their immigration status, and is frustrated that critics tie the Santos case to his jail program.

Jenkins has attended meetings in Annapolis to make sure the 287(g) program can continue.

"It's good for our country," he said. "It's a very effective program from where I sit."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun