Sheriffs say can't afford extra officers for immigration program

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Sheriffs in most Midstate counties are hesitant to apply for a program that allows deputies to check the immigration status of jail inmates because they say they're unable to hire extra officers for the task.

The program provides federal training and equipment to sheriff's departments, making it possible to identify and help deport illegal immigrants who are booked into county jails.

But departments that participate are required to pay for extra officers to conduct the immigration duties, which a number of sheriffs say they just can't afford. "There's nobody that's not interested in that program," said Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe.

But, he explained, "it's not as simple as putting them on a bus and taking them back to Mexico. The federal government has not made this user-friendly."

The Davidson County Sheriff's Department, which has 15 officers trained in immigration work, launched the program in April and is among 21 police agencies in the nation using it.

The program is the first in Tennessee. Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said he applied for the program last year after high-profile incidents in which illegal immigrants were implicated.

Some of the immigrants had been arrested repeatedly - but never deported - before being charged with more serious crimes.

Since the program began, nearly 10 percent of people booked into the Metro Jail have been foreign-born.

Of the 936 foreign-born inmates, 736 of them have been sent for deportation proceedings, sheriff's officials said. Hall said he's been inundated with inquiries about the program from sheriffs in the region.

Rutherford County's application has been approved, and that department expects to become the second in Tennessee to join when 10 sheriff's deputies undergo immigration training in November.

But, allocating that much manpower for immigration enforcement is beyond the reach of many departments, officials said.

"Do you understand how that can cripple a small department like mine?" questioned Maury County Sheriff Enoch George.

In recent months, Maury County sheriff's officials have tackled illegal immigration informally, inviting agents from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on criminal investigations in neighborhoods with large numbers of illegal immigrants.

The raids have resulted in the arrests of dozens of undocumented immigrants, officials said.

For some counties, the small size of illegal immigrant populations doesn't justify the expense. "I'm seeing more every day, but as far as crime right now, we don't have that much crime with the Hispanic people or illegal immigrants," Cheatham County Sheriff John Holder said.

In Montgomery County, sheriff's officials said they have no intention of applying for the program and unfairly burdening local taxpayers.

"We want to let the feds do what they're supposed to do," said Ted Denny, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)