By TINA IRGANG
WASHINGTON (Nov. 21, 2009) - Enlisting local police in immigration enforcement could help prevent crimes committed by illegal immigrants, Baltimore's former Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary McLhinney, argued in a panel discussion Thursday.
McLhinney urged widespread adoption of the so-called 287(g) program, which allows specially trained local police to check the immigration status of criminal suspects and refer them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for detention or deportation.
The remarks came on the heels of a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Chuck Jenkins in Frederick County, the only Maryland jurisdiction participating in 287(g). The suit, filed Nov. 10, alleges that two of Jenkins' deputies are guilty of racial profiling in the recent questioning and arrest of a Salvadoran woman.
Local police departments tend to disagree over when to contact ICE to check a suspect's immigration status. In Montgomery County, officers only reach out to ICE if an offender has committed a violent crime.
McLhinney, who served as Maryland Transportation Authority Police chief until 2007, said the 287(g) program constitutes a vital link between local law enforcement and the federal government.
"The folks from ICE, I needed them for resources," McLhinney said. "But they needed me in the community because I was there for 28 years and I knew the crime problems."
"For local law enforcement not to be involved in enforcing illegal immigration ties their hands," McLhinney said, and he added that the wrong message is sent when police officers are told to enforce some laws, but not others.
McLhinney comments came as part of a panel hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, and called to discuss two recent reports on immigration and crime by the center's researchers.
The first report, published Thursday, uses data obtained from the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies to argue that immigrants have high rates of criminality.
The Department of Homeland Security data suggest, among other things, that 20 percent of federal inmates are legal or illegal immigrants, and that crime rates are higher in cities with a large influx of legal immigrants, according to Steven Camarota, the study's lead author and research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Camarota said he had not been able to ascertain the department's methodology in collecting the data, making it difficult to "get a clear picture" on the relationship between immigration and crime.
"We leave it in doubt; we can't really resolve it," Camarota said.
The Immigration Policy Center, another Washington-based think tank, released a strongly worded statement Wednesday to protest the CIS study's conclusions.
The report, the center argued, "attempts to overturn a century's worth of research which has demonstrated repeatedly that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit violent crimes or end up behind bars ... CIS's real agenda appears to be to promote the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs."
The Secure Communities program allows local law enforcement to simultaneously check criminal records and immigration status for offenders in their custody.
The Center for Immigration Studies reported in October that the 287(g) program has been successful in identifying illegal immigrants with criminal records. That report was also discussed at Thursday's panel session.
Lead author Jessica Vaughan defended 287(g) against criticism, saying "there have been no confirmed instances of racial profiling."
Vaughan called the program "very successful" and said it had been "vilified" by its opponents.
These opponents, Vaughan said, have "empowered some of the local advocacy groups who are opposed to 287(g) to bring legal challenges to some of these programs."
Vaughan cited the lawsuit against Frederick County's Sheriff Jenkins as the most recent example.
"These criticisms are not based on any actual experience," Vaughan said. "They're purely allegations that haven't been substantiated."
Immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland, which filed the suit in conjunction with another group, disagrees with Vaughan's assessment.
"We stand firmly by the facts alleged in the complaint and look forward to our day in court," said CASA de Maryland staff attorney Sebastian Amar.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.