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To Catch an Alien: Locals, Feds at Odds

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Delegate Jack Reid, R-Henrico, and Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade traveled to Charlotte, N.C., last month and liked what they saw.

At a jail there, officers could access a national database to quickly determine whether a prisoner was an illegal immigrant.

Reid wants that same authority for law enforcement officers in Virginia -- currently, they aren't allowed to determine a prisoner's citizen status — and many of the state's high-ranking Republicans agree.

In the absence of federal legislation to curb the influx of illegal immigrants, localities across the country are pining to take matters into their own hands. A popular proposal has been to give police officers and sheriff's deputies the authority to determine a prisoner's legal status.

But the push is putting a strain on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which doesn't have the resources to properly train so many local officers, says Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Customs officials also are concerned that outsourcing deportation authority could clog the system, she says, and could potentially lead to uneven application of federal law.

Officials in Orange County, Calif., asked for 200 officers to be trained — "and you're talking about a place that's practically ground zero for illegal immigration and criminal aliens," Vaughan says. "They got 14."

Last week, Republican lawmakers in Virginia rolled out a plan requiring every jail to have at least one person on duty at all times who has been certified by the federal government to detain illegal aliens. U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Henrico, and state Attorney General Bob McDonnell have supported similar measures.

Vaughan says her understanding is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement "would not have any intention of supporting" Virginia's proposals for more local deportation authority.

ICE extends policing power to local officers who undergo four to five weeks of training. But the program is small and intended for areas of the country with a high percentage of illegal immigrants. Of the 70 localities nationally that have applied for training in the past few years, Vaughan says, only 30 have been approved. Of those, far fewer officers ended up receiving the required training.

She says ICE is moving away from that program and toward an educational one that would teach local officers how to understand the different versions of green cards and visas.

Richard Rocha, a spokesman for ICE, wouldn't say whether the agency was hesitant to expand the program. "We realize [the program] is one of our flagship partnership programs," Rocha says. "What we want to do is make sure that before we enter into it, that that partnership is the right program for that area." S

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