News: CJ Exclusives

Illegal Immigrants Filling Jails

Sheriff's department officials around state predict thing will worsen

County jails throughout North Carolina are stressed to the limit with illegal immigrants, law-enforcement officials say.

With the lack of immigration control to deal with the estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants residing in the state, it probably won’t be getting better anytime soon.

Kevin Jastzabski, prison captain for the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, said the number of Hispanics clogging the county’s system is getting larger everyday. “We do have a problem, and it is going to keep on growing,” he said “It doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down any time soon.”

Randy Jones, director of public information for the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department, said about 40 percent of the inmates in the county’s jail are Hispanics and most of those have illegally entered the country.

“It’s draining the system, and you’re looking at disaster,” he said. “Some of the public is just coming to grips with (illegal immigrants). Right now, there’s not a way to solve the problem until the government solves the problem. The issue needs to be addressed on both the federal and state level.”

It’s not racial discrimination, as some have feared, but cultural differences that are putting most of the illegal immigrants behind bars.

The arrests are legitimate, Jones said, and arise mostly from drug trafficking or driving under the influence of alcohol in Alamance County. DUI is the number one killer of Hispanic males in the state, he said.

“There are cultural differences,” he said. “They drink and drive. It’s culturally acceptable for them to do that. When we bring them in, they are usually double the legal limit. But law-enforcement officers have been called racist and have been accused of singling out Hispanics. Now the statistics are showing we were probably right from the onset — law-enforcement-wise.”

Illegal drug use and smuggling is also a problem among those illegally living in North Carolina. Sheriff Steve Bizzell of Johnson County addressed this topic during an Issues Forum on Illegal Immigration at the North Carolina Leadership Conference 2006. Eighty percent to 85 percent of drug trafficking in his jurisdiction is committed by Hispanics, he said.

A growing wave of gang-related violence, including murders and armed robberies, is also cropping up in rural counties. In an ABC News report, Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said Sampson County is trying to deal with a surge of Hispanic gangs.

“They think they can set up their gangs in these rural areas and really get by with more,” he said. “They don’t think that the small-town departments have the sophistication and the ability or the personnel to handle what they’re coming in here with.”

Alamance County needs to implement a Gang Intervention Unit because of the growth of Hispanic gangs, Jones said.

Another problem plaguing jails throughout the state are repeat offenders, who are virtually given a “get out of jail free” card when they are deported. It doesn’t matter whether they were apprehended for serious or violent crimes, U.S. officials drop the charges and send them back to their own country. It’s usually only a matter of days before they cross the border back into the United States again under a different name, officials said.

Julia Rush, director of communications for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department, estimated that illegal immigrants comprise 15 percent of the county’s inmate population. Some repeat offenders have been jailed as many as 22 times, she said.

Jim Kouri, the fifth vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police and a writer for New Media Alliance, said this is not uncommon. Two-thirds of illegal immigrants across the country have been arrested before and 61 percent have been convicted of crimes at least once, he said.

“In the population study of a sample of 55,322 illegal aliens, researchers found that they were arrested at least a total of 459,614 times,” Kouri wrote, “averaging about eight arrests per illegal alien.”

Although it might be a losing battle for now, Rush said, Mecklenburg is trying to make improvements. The county is part of the Section 287(G) Program, designed to keep better track of illegal immigrants. Together, the county and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement are fingerprinting and photographing the hundreds of illegal aliens arrested in the area each month.

James Jay Carafano of The Heritage Foundation said Section 287(G) is vital because both state and local law enforcement are critical in aiding federal immigration investigations.

“Section 287(G) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides the legal authority for state and local enforcement to investigate, detain, and arrest aliens on civil and criminal grounds,” he wrote. “ Any comprehensive border and immigration security legislation by Congress should include provisions for strengthening and expanding programs authorized under Section 287(G).”

Although Section 287(G) has been in existence since 1996, Mecklenburg is the only county east of California that has the program in place. There are others trying to help rectify the situation.

Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., recently announced a regional plan for eight counties in western North Carolina to deal with illegal immigrants.

Rutherford County Sheriff Philip Byers was pleased with the new plan.

“This will allow us to enforce the laws that are already on the books,” he said in a press release. “We welcome legal immigrants, but want to deal with those who break the laws to get here and especially those who sell drugs, drive without licenses, and commit other crimes while here.”

Karen Welsh is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.