AJC – Feds stick to their focus as Georgia lawmakers seek to crack down on illegal immigrants | ajc.com

Feds stick to their focus as Georgia lawmakers seek to crack down on illegal immigrants  | ajc.com.

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Georgia Politics 8:55 a.m. Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A top federal immigration official for Atlanta said her agency will stick to its priority of deporting violent criminals amid efforts by state lawmakers to crack down on a broader variety of illegal immigrants in Georgia.

Complaining about inaction in Washington, Georgia legislators have introduced bills aimed at preventing employers from hiring illegal immigrants and barring those illegal immigrants from attending the state’s colleges and collecting workers’ compensation. They are also studying a tough new Arizona law that requires police officers to check the immigration status of people they stop for questioning.

But the federal government — which is responsible for detaining and deporting illegal immigrants — has limited resources and can’t catch all illegal immigrants, said Felicia Skinner, the director for detention and removal operations for the Atlanta field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So the agency is focusing on deporting those convicted of violent crimes, including killers, rapists, kidnappers and robbers.

“There are lots of undocumented aliens in this country,” Skinner said in a recent interview in her downtown Atlanta office. “It is not possible for us to go out and arrest all of them or to detain all of them. Because a state passes a law — any state that passes a law — ICE still has to focus on keeping the community safe and keeping the nation safe.”

ICE has about 3,000 beds available in detention centers in Georgia for people facing deportation, Skinner said. The largest of these jails — the Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia – was nearly full in November with about 1,900 detainees, though that number fluctuates.

Meanwhile, ICE is expanding a nationwide federal fingerprint-sharing program aimed at deporting violent illegal immigrants. The “Secure Communities” program could send more detainees to ICE’s detention centers in Georgia in the coming months. Bracing for the expected increase, ICE is preparing to start sending more deportees to the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, about three hours south of Atlanta. As many as 350 could be housed there by this summer, Skinner said.

“At the end of the day I only have x number of beds and I only have x number of officers,” Skinner said. “And so our priorities are to get the most egregious, the most violent criminals off the streets. And that is what we are going to do.”

Skinner’s boss, Assistant Secretary of ICE John Morton, outlined the federal agency’s priorities in a column published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year.

“Like members of Congress and [Homeland Security]Secretary Janet Napolitano, I see the removal of criminal aliens as a top priority to secure the nation and protect public safety,” Morton wrote. “In a world of limited resources, ICE must make difficult choices about how to direct resources.”

State Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, co-chairman of a special legislative study committee on immigration, said that if ICE must “set a priority, it makes sense to go after the criminals first.” But he said he and other state lawmakers are drafting legislation aimed at illegal immigration partly out of frustration with the federal government’s efforts.

“We don’t control what resources they have,” said Ramsey, who is expected to introduce comprehensive immigration-related legislation in the House this week. “We are doing what we can as a state to address the problem and continue to hope that the federal government at some point is going to step up and get serious about addressing the myriad problems that have been created by their failure to adequately secure our borders.”

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