- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

Area law-enforcement officials say they have no plans to change the way they handle illegal aliens despite a move by the Bush administration to implement the immediate catch-and-removal of non-Mexican illegals nationwide.

Currently, local police do not ask the immigration status of persons they pull over during routine traffic stops or arrest unless a felony has been committed. But federal immigration officials said they want to begin detaining and deporting illegal aliens as soon as they are caught — possibly with the help of local police.

“This is something that’s in the process of political dialogue, so once something [becomes] firm and [is] presented through the proper channels, then we would feel comfortable commenting,” said Lucille Baur, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County police. “But based on our policies at this time, this is something that would not be a forefront issue for us.”

Sgt. Terry Licklider, a spokesman for Virginia State Police, agreed. “It seems like that stuff with the feds is still being worked out. … The way our policy is now is going to stay the same. It’s worked for us in the past, and that’s the way we’re going to continue to do it,” he said.

Police in the D.C. area said they do not know how many illegal aliens they encounter on a daily basis because of the current policy. Police in Northern Virginia say they occasionally work with immigration officials to bring to justice those gang members who are in the U.S. illegally.

Local officials said they are “aware” that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week said immigration agents along the Southwest border essentially have eliminated the catch and subsequent release of non-Mexicans who sneak across the border. The intent was to have them return later for deportation proceedings.

Mr. Chertoff attributed the policy change to a $1.9 billion boost in funding for extra detention beds, the deployment of National Guard troops and a quicker turnaround time for securing travel documents, which has enabled immigration agents to more readily detain, then swiftly deport, illegal aliens from Latin American countries.

Catch-and-release has not applied to Mexicans, who are returned to their country immediately.

Michael Keegan, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said the new approach does not yet apply to the D.C. area., but that the goal is to end catch-and-release nationally.

“Right now, it’s just along the Southwest border,” he said. “Of course strategywise you have to focus your efforts in one area and then move outward, [but] the goal eventually will be to end catch-and-release throughout the entire country.”

For years, authorities in the Washington area have complained they must deal with local immigration issues such as day laborers, overcrowding and gangs rather than worry about federal enforcement, or that they lack authority to enforce federal immigration laws and there is no manpower or resources to detain illegal aliens if they did.

In June, Manassas police lamented that they could not stop a van full of illegal aliens that they knew was on its way from Ohio because police don’t have the authority to detain them.

Federal authorities said they hope the increase in detention beds and manpower will allow them to immediately take into custody and deport illegal aliens released from local jails. In the meantime, they said local law enforcement can assist with catch-and-removal efforts by taking ICE training that allows local officers to enforce immigration laws.

“If we were able to call ICE for every illegal alien we ran into and they would come and deport them, that would probably help a lot,” Sgt. Tim Neumann, a spokesman for Manassas police, said last week. “If they had the resources … that would take away a lot of our nuisance crimes.”

But most police in the region — including Herndon, Fairfax and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — declined to comment on the possibility of local catch-and-removal efforts until they see a proposal in writing.

They said they fear that being asked to potentially help immigration officials detain illegal aliens would invoke fear in the Hispanic community.

“It’s very important to us as a police department that our community members know we are here to protect and defend them,” Miss Baur said. “We have done a good deal of outreach with our Hispanic community to let them know if they’re a victim of crime or have information that could help us solve a crime, we are not going to question their immigration status.”

Gary Emerling contributed to this article.

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