TAMPA — Access to a Homeland Security Department database helped local law enforcement identify more than 111,000 immigrants in custody in the last year who may have faced sanctions from immigration officials, federal authorities announced Thursday.
In October 2008, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began granting local jails access to its records. The initiative, called Secure Communities, extends through 95 jurisdictions across 11 states.
In Florida, 13 counties participate, including Hillsborough, which joined in February, and Pinellas, which joined this week.
"It's just another tool, a resource that we have, to work with the federal government and ICE," said Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats.
Traditionally, as inmates are booked into county jails, their fingerprints were cross checked against an FBI database. The new program allows local jails to automatically run fingerprints of incoming inmates through an ICE database.
That way, local jails know a person's immigration history and can notify ICE when an immigrant has been charged with a crime. Immigration officials then conduct followup interviews with the inmate to determine their next step.
"Access to timely and accurate information about state and local arrests is critical to identifying dangerous criminal aliens," ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton said in a statement.
Col. Jim Previtera, who oversees jails in Hillsborough County, called the process an improvement over the way things used to work.
Previtera said he'd still like to see ICE pick up inmates faster.
"In terms of what we had before and where we are now, we're improving. I don't know if we're there yet," Previtera said.
But he said ICE has been accommodating and addressing problems as they arise.
"I think we're moving in the right direction," he said.
It's unclear whether this program might have prevented an illegal immigrant suspected of robbery and rape from being released from the Hillsborough County jail to allegedly rape again within days.
In July 2008, St. Petersburg police suspected Rigoberto Moron Martinez of rape and robbery at the Table restaurant downtown but lacked evidence.
Hillsborough deputies arrested Martinez a month later on an outstanding domestic violence warrant but he was free again that same day. Ten days later, authorities said, Martinez and two accomplices abducted, robbed and raped two Apollo Beach women.
Last month, Martinez was sentenced to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to the charges.
ICE says its goal is to make sure dangerous people in the country illegally aren't released back into communities.
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.