The incarceration arms of two Utah sheriff offices will soon play an active role in immigration enforcement.
Weber and Washington counties have entered into agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for some corrections officers to receive federal training on immigration enforcement.
"We worked really hard to get this," said Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith. "The application process had us in competition with many other agencies around the country. It's exciting stuff."
The counties are Utah's first to participate in the 287(g) program. Some 750 law or corrections officers with 48 agencies across the country have been trained through such agreements.
The two Utah agreements don't apply to officers on the street. The corrections officers who receive the five-week training will question criminal suspects to determine their immigration status as part of the booking process, said Steve Branch, director of the ICE Salt Lake City field office.
"What it does is improve our partnership with state and local agencies to ensure criminal aliens are not released from jail back into our communities," Branch said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced the new agreements in a statement Thursday, saying, "This is a key step forward in paving the way for increased coordination between ICE and local law enforcement to catch and deport illegal aliens who are committing crimes and harming the safety of our neighborhoods."
ICE credits the 287(g) program with leading to 50,000 suspected illegal immigrants nationwide since 2006. However, some law officers and immigrant rights advocates say the agreements can lead to even more fear within a community that is already reluctant to work with police.
"We will see victims of crime being afraid to report it," said Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah.
Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said, generally, such agreements could strain local resources, such as jail space, and lead to racial profiling.
"It wanders into an area that is detrimental to how we do business," he said. "Local law enforcement should be here to provide equal access ... Do you want police officers asking every single person they encounter if they are here illegally?"
However, Smith said the two Washington County deputies he plans to send to the training will only focus on the "criminal" element, becoming immigration "point persons" for the department by being able to answer questions about legal status when they arise.
"That's important: we mean the criminal illegal alien," he said. "We want the really bad guys."
The agreements may be the first of many in Utah as a state law set to take effect in July, 2009, requires the attorney general to negotiate such agreements on behalf of Utah's local and state law enforcement agencies. And, Davis County applied for such an agreement last August.
"It's going to mean a lot of extra work, but it's going to be worth it," Smith said. "It has been a real challenge to determine the status of the individual."
Branch added that ICE does provide support for the local officers and said Utah has received additional resources to deal with criminal aliens."It's a partnership," Branch said. "There will be communication and oversite on a daily basis."