- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Prince George’s County on Wednesday ended its policy of holding illegal immigrants in jail beyond their scheduled release so immigration officials can take them into federal custody for deportation.

The county’s Department of Corrections formerly held inmates for 48 hours beyond their scheduled release based on a written request for pickup, called a detainer, filed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But it will now require the agency to get a warrant signed by a judge that demonstrates probable cause before continuing to hold an inmate beyond the time frame allowed by state law.

The jail implemented the new policy at the behest of Democratic County Executive Rushern L. Baker III after an opinion by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office concluded holds made without probable cause likely violate the Fourth Amendment. Gov. Martin O’Malley, also a Democrat, announced a similar policy change last month for the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center.

“We have changed our policy to reflect the attorney general’s opinion that individuals should not be deprived of their freedom based on an administrative detainer,” said Mary Lou McDonough, director of the Prince George’s County jail. “We will only hold individuals on a warrant, which is issued after probable cause is shown.”

The change in policy, which took effect Wednesday, is significant as the county was the first in the state to begin turning inmates over to ICE though the controversial Secure Communities program and it has led Maryland in deportations of illegal immigrants through the program.

Secure Communities calls for local authorities to share with ICE fingerprint and criminal data of people brought to jail so immigration officials can deport illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes.

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Participation in Secure Communities is federally mandated, but based on legislators’ enthusiasm — or lack thereof — for the program, state and local officials have adopted a patchwork of laws that can help or hinder the program’s efficiency. Lawmakers in neighboring Montgomery County openly opposed the program, and in the District officials adopted a that law that blocked its Department of Corrections from holding inmates on detainers. But Prince George’s officials didn’t see the change in policy as taking a political stance on the program.

“If it’s not appropriate for us to follow the 48-hour hold rule, then we’ve got to protect the county and the taxpayers,” said Barry Stanton, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for public safety.

Prince George’s County implemented the Secure Communities program in December 2009 and has deported 877 people through its jail since then — the most of any other county in the state, according to federal data from ICE. An analysis by The Washington Times last year found the county accounted for nearly half of Maryland’s deportations.

The county has always tried to work with ICE but it wanted to follow the best legal guidance on the issue to avoid putting itself at risk of any liabilities or lawsuits, Mr. Stanton said.

“ICE can pick some people up on the street or go get warrants,” said Mr. Stanton, adding that the county’s office of law also agreed with the attorney general opinion. “Our goal is still, as much as we can within the legal requirements of the law, to work with ICE.”

Asked whether ICE would begin seeking warrants for inmates in Prince George’s County, ICE spokesman Harold Ort wrote in an email response only that the agency would “continue to lodge immigration detainers on criminals who are held by local authorities and are determined to be an enforcement priority.”

No warrants were filed Wednesday, jail officials said.

Mr. Ort stressed that when agents have to track down inmates who have been released into the community, it puts agents at unnecessary risk.

“When serious criminal offenders are released to the streets in a community, rather than to ICE custody, it undermines ICE’s ability to protect public safety and impedes us from enforcing the nation’s immigration laws,” he said.

The rate at which nonviolent offenders have been caught up in the program and deported has been a point of contention among advocates for immigrants and for those who want to crack down on illegal immigration.

“Requiring that immigration detainer requests be accompanied by a warrant issued by a judge is the only constitutional policy,” said Sirine Shebaya, attorney directing the ACLU of Maryland’s immigrants’ rights advocacy.

Other Maryland counties are also reviewing their policies in light of the attorney general’s opinion.

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