Montgomery County, one of two Maryland jurisdictions yet to implement a federal program enabling information-sharing between FBI and immigration officials, will begin participating in the program this month, officials said.
Only Montgomery County and the city of Baltimore had not implemented the Secure Communities program, which requires FBI officials to share the fingerprints of all inmates that they receive from county jails with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation Director Arthur Wallenstein.
County officials, including the department of corrections, police and the sheriff’s office were notified on Feb. 14 that Secure Communities will be implemented today, Wallenstein said Thursday.
Under the new requirement, ICE officials will be able to identify inmates or prisoners who are in the country illegally and potentially begin deportation proceedings against them, a fact that has alarmed immigrant rights advocacy groups such as the Langley Park-based Casa of Maryland.
Casa officials said the implementation of the program would increase deportations, even for immigrants put in jail for non-violent or minor crimes.
Wallenstein and other county officials maintain that the program only affects information sharing between federal organizations, not county agencies.
“In other words, we send all fingerprints in to the FBI — every jail in America does — and the FBI will now share those with homeland security and ICE,” Wallenstein said.
Federal officials pushed back the deadline for implementation of the program in September, prompting anti-illegal-immigration groups such as Rally for America, which supported the Secure Communities program, to accuse Montgomery County officials of trying to hold up the program.
State Del. Pat McDonough (R-Dist. 7) of Middle River, who runs Rally for America, introduced a bill Feb. 2 — House Bill 467 — in the General Assembly to withhold state public safety funds from any jurisdictions that persisted in postponing implementation. McDonough said he withdrew the bill with the announcement last week that the program will be implemented, but he remains skeptical whether or not county officials will actually cooperate.
“[The county is] required to provide this information quickly to ICE and the FBI, so if there’s an illegal alien who is arrested, he might get out on bail and flee the area if ICE doesn’t know about it soon enough,” McDonough said, implying county officials may drag their feet in providing the required information. “It’s one thing to say you’re going to cooperate, and it’s another thing to walk the walk.”
Wallenstein denied the accusations, saying instead that the federal authorities themselves postponed the program’s implementation last year after discovering they did not have enough staff at that time to handle the upsurge in data the program would bring.
Assistant Chief Wayne Jerman of the Montgomery County Police Department was confident implementation of the program would not affect the department’s practices in any way. However, Jerman said, police officials are aware of the fears generated by the program in certain communities in the county.
“We want to try to perform some outreach to everybody who has concerns about this,” he said. “We don’t want crimes to go unreported or contacts to the police to lessen because of fear of this. [Montgomery County police] will not be requiring immigration status, this is just a federal program.”