Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Tahlequah Police Department Officer Anthony Bowling makes a routine traffic stop in Tahlequah.

Undocumented immigrants have become a heated topic throughout the country, as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency recently conducted raids to deport immigrants who have court orders to leave the country.

Citizens have been protesting the treatment of undocumented immigrants, including an event staged at Fort Sill in Lawton, to condemn plans to jail migrant children at the U.S. Army base. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe announced last week that those plans were on hold.

The state of the country's souther border suggest to some that a crisis is occurring, while others believe there should be smoother paths to citizenship. It's difficult to determine the number of undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security estimated 12 million as of 2015, but various estimates range from 10 million to more than 20 million.

The country's size offers ample room for undocumented aliens to find place to stay, including in Oklahoma. The number of cases local law enforcement runs into is minimal, but encounters do occur.

Tahlequah Police Department Chief Nate King said interactions between police and those living in the city illegally are few, and TPD does not have an agreement in place with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"I'm sure we run across some," said King. "I wouldn't call it prevalent per se. It's not something that overwhelms us. We're also not just driving around checking people for papers and if they don't have them, arresting them, either."

Whether a person is arrested is up to the officer's discretion. If an undocumented individual was pulled over and did not have a driver's license, he might not necessarily be arrested.

"It would be really no different from you or me getting pulled over, if we didn't have our driver's license," said King. "Sometimes those people go to jail and sometimes they're just issued a citation and released on their own recognizance to come back to court."

Another local law enforcement agency, the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service, has similar contact.

"The Cherokee Nation Marshal Service doesn't typically work cases involving illegal immigrants," said Director Shannon Buhl. "The only time marshals would ever get involved is if an undocumented immigrant were to commit a crime on tribal land; then marshals would call in ICE."

It's common in most local agencies to have minimal interaction with undocumented immigrants. When it does happen, the person's immigration status is not typically checked by the TPD. The department only has a 10-day lockup cell, so King said most arrestees are sent to the Cherokee County Detention Center, where most notifications to ICE occur.

CCDC Administrator T.J. Girdner has seen a decline in the number of "illegal aliens" held in the jail. While the number on a monthly basis was as high as seven, he said it's been months since he saw the number above three.

"Numbers have really declined over the last year. Five years ago, we would hold five to seven at a time, and now we just have one or two," said Girdner.

For the most part, an undocumented immigrant isn't arrested or charged for being here illegally. Girdner said when they are taken into custody, they are charged and with the crime that got them arrested. Their citizenship status is determined after they have been brought in for an arrest. They are housed at the jail until the charges are filed or dismissed. A hold will then be placed on individuals who have been determined to be here illegally.

"If they are arrested, they will come in, and if they don't have the proper ID, then we contact ICE, and they will do a phone interview and they will determine whether to place the immigration hold on the person," said Girdner.

If charges for a traffic violation or a petty crime are dismissed and the individual is released from custody, agents are notified and have 48 hours to pick him up from the detention center. If agents don't show up during that period, the person is released.

"If they release them, then we don't place that hold. Once they are sentenced, if they go to prison, then they do go to prison," said the administrator. "Once they leave here on that immigration, they go to ICE and they open up a case file and try to track down their documentation to determine right then if they are illegal or if they can file for paperwork before they are actually deported."

Girdner isn't sure why the number of illegal immigrants housed in the jail has declined, but he said those who are there are usually well-mannered and respectful toward him and his staff.

"They are illegal immigrants, not immigrants - there's a difference. I have no problem with anyone here, but four or five years ago, we had ones in the jail that were in there all the time," he said. "Laws are laws, and they are there to protect us."

Law enforcement officers must have probable cause to pull a person over, and suspecting him of being here illegally isn't a cause. Investigator Brad Baker said officers do not stop people with the assumption they may be undocumented.

"We still have to have probable cause to pull a car over and we can't do a special emphasis on illegal immigrants driving. We have to know beyond a reasonable doubt that they're illegal," Baker said.

Section 287(g) was added to the Immigration and Nationality Act by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. In 2018, the 287(g) Program encountered approximately 700 illegals convicted for assault, 670 convicted for dangerous drugs, 150 convicted for sex offenses/assaults, 150 convicted for obstructing police, 125 convicted for weapon offenses, and 13 convicted for homicide.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 287(g) program created partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies to identify illegals to be removed from the country. Local law enforcement officers are required to have the appropriate training and to function under ICE officers' supervision. The partnership allows state and local officers to act as a "force multiplier" when dealing with undocumented individuals.

There are two model types the program uses: jail enforcement model and warrant search model. JEM is designed to identify and process illegal immigrants who have criminal or pending criminal charges and were arrested by state or local law enforcement. WSO provides opportunities for jurisdictions to participate in a cooperative agreement with ICE. There are WSO agreements with 10 law enforcement agencies in the state of Florida.

As of this month, ICE has JEM agreements with 79 law enforcement agencies in 21 states. Three law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma have signed that agreement; Canadian County Sheriff's Office, Okmulgee County Criminal Justice Authority and Tulsa County Sheriff's Office.

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