A South Jersey jail's corrections officers could soon be able to question detainees about their residency status, regardless of the crime they committed, and process them for immigration violations.
The possibility of this new role has sparked concern from the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the move could stoke fear and distrust between authorities and communities in Salem County, where nearly 16,000 of the 64,000 residents are minorities. The county is 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia.
The ACLU has urged the county's correctional facility not to participate in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 287(g) program, which offers local law enforcement agencies powers similar to those of federal immigration agents. Thirty-two agencies across the U.S. use the program, including two in North Jersey, according to federal officials.
Advocates say the program targets immigrants with violent histories who are here illegally, not others. In the last two years at Hudson County's Correctional Center, fewer than 1 percent of people detained and taken there by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials - 64 of 8,000 - have been identified as violent offenders who should be targeted for deportation, county spokesman Jim Kennelly said. The others were given due process in court, he said.
Critics say the program unfairly targets Latino communities. They point to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Arizona, which used the program until 2011, when the U.S. Justice Department discovered the office was racially profiling Latinos through unlawful stops and detentions.
"Voluntarily applying for a 287(g) contract sends the message that deportation is a potential consequence of any interaction with law enforcement," the ACLU and other immigrants-rights groups said in a letter addressed Tuesday to Salem County officials, including jail warden Ray Skradzinski.
Skradzinski said in an interview that his facility had operated since February as a temporary holding place for individuals detained by federal immigration agents. Six such suspects have entered the jail in that period, he said.
They typically stay less than 72 hours in the inmate-intake unit, outside the general population of nearly 400 inmates, before heading to a more permanent facility or a deportation hearing.
Skradzinski said he wants to use the federal program to teach up to five of his 146 correctional officers how to handle immigration issues. The program could allow those officers to fingerprint, photograph, and process inmates for immigration violations, in addition to other criminal charges. It could also give the officers access to a federal database to flag violent criminals.
Skradzinski said the officers would not try to track down undocumented immigrants not already in custody.
"We have no intention of going out on the streets and patrolling to enforce immigration laws," he said.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement's program requires local corrections officers to complete four weeks of training on immigration and civil rights laws. The officers must be U.S. citizens, have at least one year's experience on their job, and have no pending disciplinary actions.
Skradzinski said he was waiting to hear from the federal agency whether the application for the program was approved. He said he would put up to five officers through training.
In addition to the Hudson County's Correctional Center, the Monmouth County Sheriff's Office also uses the program. Its agreement expired June 30, but a spokeswoman said the office planned to renew it.
In Hudson County, where immigrant advocate groups have loudly criticized the program, officials are debating whether to stick with it.
Kennelly, the county spokesman, said the arguments go beyond identifying individuals as illegal immigrants.
"The issue is larger, and that issue is: What is the appropriate role for federal immigration officials and local law enforcement?" he said, adding, "And that is a decision, a balancing act."