POLITICS

Texas using immigrant screening program amid constitutional concerns, others pull back

ADELANTO, CA - NOVEMBER 15: A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. Most detainees in segregation cells are sent there for fighting with other immigrants, according to guards. The facility, the largest and newest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detention center in California, houses an average of 1,100 immigrants in custody pending a decision in their immigration cases or awaiting deportation. The average stay for a detainee is 29 days. The facility is managed by the private GEO Group. ICE detains an average of 33,000 undocumented immigrants in more than 400 facilities nationwide. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

ADELANTO, CA - NOVEMBER 15: A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. Most detainees in segregation cells are sent there for fighting with other immigrants, according to guards. The facility, the largest and newest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detention center in California, houses an average of 1,100 immigrants in custody pending a decision in their immigration cases or awaiting deportation. The average stay for a detainee is 29 days. The facility is managed by the private GEO Group. ICE detains an average of 33,000 undocumented immigrants in more than 400 facilities nationwide. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

An immigration advocacy group says more than 250 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are pulling back from a screening program for immigrants amid criticism that it may be unconstitutional, but the program is still being used in all Texas counties.

The Houston Chronicle reports that under the Secure Communities Initiative, jailers submit the fingerprints of everyone booked into jail to the Homeland Security Department to run through an immigration database. If they get a match, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials can file "detainer requests" asking local law enforcement agencies to hold suspects up to 48 hours until they can be transferred to federal custody for deportation.

The program unveiled in 2008 has been ICE's signature immigration enforcement initiative and the agency says it remains necessary because it ensures "dangerous criminals" aren't released into communities. But critics say it unfairly targets Latinos and deports immigrants in the country illegally caught for minor crimes rather than focusing ICE's limited resources on violent offenders.

Following a spate of court rulings this spring, agency after agency across the U.S. began either ignoring detainer requests for immigrants or restricting the cases they would continue to hold suspects for transfer to federal authorities. Those rulings include a federal appeals court saying that states and local agencies don't have to honor detainer requests because they don't amount to the probable cause required by the Constitution to keep someone jailed.

"Agencies fear they'll be liable for unconstitutional detention," said Lena Graber, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. The center has tracked around 255 agencies that have restricted the use of detainers, while ICE tallied 157 through the end of August, though many have curtailed it in just the past few weeks.

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Bucking the nationwide trend is Texas, in which every county jail continues to comply with ICE detainer requests by holding suspects whose fingerprints match the immigration database.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia defended his agency's compliance with detainer requests. Because ICE operates within the jail, he said inmates are almost "instantaneously" transferred to the agency's custody, so there's little lag time between when they've been arraigned and are turned over to ICE.

Harris County has deported 24,161 immigrants through Secure Communities since 2008, the largest number in the state, with the Houston region removing the fourth-most immigrants in the nation, according to ICE figures through August.

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