Nation & World

DWIs ensnare many illegal immigrants

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CORRECTION

A front-page story Thursday about the deportation of Wake jail inmates gave an incorrect last name for a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman. Her name is Barbara Gonzalez.

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Nearly half the people flagged for deportation in the two months since the Wake County sheriff started an immigrant detention program were jailed on charges of impaired driving and traffic offenses.

Violent offenses -- assaults, sex crimes and robberies -- compose a much smaller percentage of charges against the 473 Wake inmates who have been processed for deportation, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Office of Immigration ad Customs Enforcement.

Up and running in Wake and seven other North Carolina counties, the jail-based program was touted by several sheriffs as a way to remove illegal immigrants who remained on the street despite convictions for serious offenses.

Wake's numbers show a trend similar to that found in other North Carolina counties that have the federal program. In Alamance and Mecklenburg counties, for example, most inmates flagged for deportation were charged with DWI or traffic offenses, not violent crimes.

Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison said he and his staff aren't targeting immigrants and that the program will weed out dangerous criminals.

"It's going to clean up not only our neighborhoods, but the neighborhoods these people are living in," Harrison said.

In mid-July, Wake detention officers started examining the citizenship status of everyone arrested and sent to jail. "Detainers" are lodged against those found to be in the country illegally. When a suspect concludes his criminal case or posts bail, he is designated for deportation.

Out of 501 people reviewed, detainers were lodged against 473, said Barbara Rocha, an ICE spokeswoman. The identities of those being processed for deportation have not been released by immigration officials.

People charged with driving while impaired composed the largest category of Wake inmates flagged for immigration violations, according to ICE statistics.

Twenty-two percent of those being processed for deportation had been charged with traffic offenses, most of which often result in fines and not jail time.

Political flashpoint

The program was created by federal law in 1996, but little used until recent years. It's quickly become a hot political issue, with some viewing the program as a way to target Latinos and others seeing it as a local fix to a broken federal immigration program.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina has strongly supported the program, and the N.C. General Assembly has allocated more than $1 million to the N.C. Sheriffs' Association to expand it and similar programs.

Wake's transition to the system hasn't been completely smooth, with the local court system struggling to balance the handling of prisoners awaiting trial on state criminal charges with their immigration violations.

Robert Rader, Wake chief District Court judge, said defense attorneys and suspects are looking to them for answers about what will happen to them in the federal immigration system.

Within a day after a person is arrested, a district court judge must explain to him or her the detention on state charges and re-examine bail amounts set by magistrates.

Late last month, one lawyer had a client, who had been convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia, released from the jail after the client was held beyond the 48 hours that federal law allows a person to be detained.

Donald Stephens, senior resident Superior Court judge, ordered that the client, Teodolo Nunez Bustos, be released immediately. He said there was no legal authority to hold Bustos, and that he hopes it proves to be an isolated incident.

It may indeed be. Wake commissioners approved a measure Tuesday that allows federal immigration agents to use up to 50 beds in the jail to temporarily house those facing deportation. The federal government will reimburse Wake County at $63.86 per day, per person.

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