Top Priority 

New Immigration and Customs Enforcement Team targets criminal aliens living in Memphis.

It didn't take immigration officials long to nab fugitive immigrants after setting up a new local office.

On September 25th, the second day of operations for the Memphis-based U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Fugitive Operations Team, Romanian citizen Gheorghe Turcas was arrested for failing to comply with a deportation order stemming from a 1996 sex offender conviction.

The local ICE team, which serves Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, was created last month to assist the region's New Orleans-based office in tracking down illegal immigrants who have committed crimes or have failed to comply with deportation orders.

Of the 62,000 illegal aliens apprehended by the effort since the teams began in 2003, more than 17,000 had convictions for serious crimes, such as homicide, robbery, sexual exploitation of children, and other aggravated felonies.

"We prioritize our fugitives and try to get criminal aliens first," says Philip Miller, assistant field office director. "There's a number of reasons a person can be deported from the United States. One is based on their criminal history. Those people are our number-one priority."

Besides setting up the local federal office, ICE has also partnered with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office to start a Criminal Alien Program (CAP), which focuses on singling out inmates who may be in the country illegally.

CAP requires jail intake officers ask each inmate three questions as they're being booked: 1) Where were you born? 2) Of what country are you a citizen? and 3) Do you claim citizenship with another country?

"If they say they're foreign-born, we call ICE and alert them that we have a potential illegal," says Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell. "They come down and see if the person is deportable. If so, we hold them until they're moved out."

Luttrell says criminal aliens aren't a huge problem in Shelby County. Only 4 percent of the current jail population is foreign-born, and about half of those people are illegal immigrants. By comparison, 10 percent of the jail population in Nashville's Davidson County are foreign-born.

Pablo Davis, executive director of Latino Memphis, hopes the regional effort will focus only on fugitives who commit serious crimes.

"We are very concerned that ICE's work to apprehend immigrant fugitives truly be targeted, rather than a net that ends up catching people who are living orderly lives, working, paying taxes, and so forth, but who happen to be undocumented and driving to work ... without a driver's license," Davis says. "[We don't want those people] to suddenly find themselves on a fast train to deportation."

Davis says surveys of Latinos living in Nashville, where a similar criminal alien program already has been implemented, indicate less confidence in local police. Though an immigrant may not be committing a crime, stricter measures targeting undocumented workers cause some to fear calling the police even when they need help.

"We hear frequently from immigrants in Memphis who are less willing to report crimes or otherwise seek police assistance due to their perceptions of the overall climate," Davis says.

The Fugitive Operations Team focuses solely on immigrants who are fugitives from the law, and Luttrell says the CAP program will only target illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

"We're not going to start driving around looking for illegals," Luttrell says. "But if they commit crimes, we're set up to handle that."

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