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Immigration agents to screen Maricopa County jail inmates

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio denies any wrongdoing at a press conference Dec. 15. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Homeland Security Department will use 50 immigration agents to screen jail inmates in Arizona’s most populous county after it revoked the sheriff’s authority to access its systems, the agency said Monday in a letter to U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl.

The letter from Homeland Security assistant secretary Nelson Peacock and obtained by The Associated Press said that the 50 dedicated agents will “screen, identify, apprehend and remove criminal aliens” found in Maricopa County jails.

The agents will replace county officers who had special training and the authority to perform the task in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s lockups. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano revoked that authority last week after a Justice Department investigation concluded that Arpaio’s office engaged in a pattern and practice of civil rights and constitutional violations and discriminated against Latino inmates in its jails.

“The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has no interest in supporting the unconstitutional pattern and practice of racial discrimination,” Peacock wrote.

Arpaio strongly disputed the Justice Department findings and said Monday that the ICE agents won’t come close to replacing the 91 officers who had been doing the work. He said agents won’t be in the jails and won’t deport all illegal immigrants.

“They’re going to have people answering telephones and deciding what levels they’re going to deport,” Arpaio said. “This is just to pacify the public that they aren’t going to be released. And they are going to be released.”

That’s not the case, according to an ICE statement sent in response to Arpaio’s comment that agents would not actually be in the jails.

“As was done previously, all individuals booked into the Maricopa County jail will be screened to determine if they are removable from the United States,” the statement said. “ICE has dedicated over 50 personnel to handle the tasks previously performed by MCSO deputies and ensure that individuals, arrested for criminal offenses and also in the country illegally will be detained and removed from the United States in line with our priorities.”

The government’s report released last week found that Arpaio’s office committed a wide range of civil rights violations against Latinos, including unjust immigration patrols and jail policies that deprive prisoners of basic constitutional rights.

The report will be used by the Justice Department to seek major changes at Arpaio’s office, such as new policies against discrimination and improvements of staff and officers.

Arpaio must decide by Jan. 4 deadline whether he wants to seek a settlement or allow the federal government to sue. A lawsuit could jeopardize millions of dollars in federal funding for Maricopa County.

Arpaio has long denied the racial profiling allegations, saying people are stopped if deputies have probable cause to believe they have committed crimes and that deputies later find many of them are illegal immigrants.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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