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Many illegals in jail

LAWRENCEVILLE - An evaluation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents has found that 68 percent of the current, foreign-born inmates at the Gwinnett County Jail entered the United States illegally.

The 26-day evaluation, referred to as a CAP (Criminal Alien Program) surge, concluded Wednesday. In that time span, ICE agents pinpointed 914 jail inmates and new book-ins who are illegal immigrants. About a third of those have been released to ICE already, while the others are being detained for possible deportation, officials announced at a jail press conference.

The immigrants came to Gwinnett from several countries, including Mexico and more far-flung locales like Honduras and Russia, officials said.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway, who's been criticized for supporting a fast-track system to deport criminal aliens, stressed that no one outside the jail was checked for citizenship during the surge. All jail inmates, which average about 2,700 per day, were screened, regardless of their claim to citizenship, he said.

Of the 914 criminal aliens identified, Conway noted that dozens are charged with violent offenses, including murder (13), armed robbery (28) and aggravated assault (38). Conversely, nearly a third of those identified (274) are charged with DUI or driving with no license.

"I can categorically state that Gwinnett County is safer today because of this operation," Conway said. "(The county) has a problem with criminal illegal aliens. I think we're the elephant in the room with that one."

Larry Orton, an assistant field office director for ICE in Atlanta, stressed the CAP surge is separate from - and should not influence Gwinnett's possibility of being approved for - another federal program, 287 (g).

Under 287 (g), ICE would train jail deputies to access federal immigration databases, enabling them to begin deportation proceedings themselves. Conway said he hopes the program will be activated soon, pending federal approval.

Orton said the Atlanta ICE office processed 7,000 criminal alien cases last year - more than double the 3,000 cases tallied a year prior. Similar CAP programs have been completed recently in South Carolina and Texas. Gwinnett's dense foreign-born population made it a logical testing ground, he said.

Conway said Gwinnettians spend as much as $7 million per year housing illegal immigrants at the jail, and a permanent program like the CAP surge would shave costs to taxpayers.

"I would like to see a program like this 24-7," he said.

Opponents say the federal programs lead to racial profiling and the tearing apart of immigrant families.

Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment recently joined two more human-rights advocacy groups - Georgia Detention Watch and Concerned Black Clergy of metro Atlanta - who have publicly voiced disapproval of Conway's plans.

Opponents of 287 (g) announced Thursday they will next meet to pray "for an end to unscrupulous deportations" in Georgia at a Norcross church Feb. 12.