While Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix gets all the media attention for his crackdown on illegal immigrants, eight deputies in an unremarkable office at the Harris County Jail are posting similar numbers for deportation — and doing so without controversy. Working two per shift, the deputies refer roughly 1,000 suspected illegal immigrants to federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities every month, helping to make the Southern District of Texas by far the busiest in the nation for illegal-immigration prosecutions.

Since joining a federal program in August 2008 that trains local law authorities to enforce immigration law, the sheriff’s office has turned up high-level gang members, a suspect wanted for murder in Mexico, and illegal immigrants from countries around the world, Lt. Michael Lindsay said.

Harris County frequently refers more cases in a given month than any other local police agency in the program, he said. But what makes the Harris County program stand apart is a routine that insulates it from the accusations of profiling that have drawn prominent criticism to programs like that run by Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona. Unlike in Maricopa County, Harris County authorities do not run street sweeps in search of illegal immigrants. But they do question everybody booked into the jail about their immigration status.

The Southern District of Texas is by far the busiest in the nation for illegal-immigration prosecutions referring roughly 1,000 suspected illegal immigrants to federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities every month. “We ask everybody, right off the bat, ‘Are you legally in the country?’ ” said Lt. Lindsay, who oversees the team that conducts the questioning. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from. It doesn’t matter your religion. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. We make everybody go through it.”

Fingerprints from all inmates accused of felonies or serious misdemeanors are forwarded automatically to ICE’s data center, which can identify matches to prints from immigrants who have had prior dealings with law enforcement. Jail officers specially trained to determine immigration status can question and check the fingerprints of anyone suspected of a lesser crime. Those who are still suspected of illegal immigration are referred to ICE agents working on site who can ask the county to turn over inmates to the agency upon their release from jail.

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