02/18/07 — Duplin seeking anti-gang funding

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Duplin seeking anti-gang funding

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 18, 2007 2:05 AM

With illegal immigrants and gang activity continuing to increase in Duplin County, Sheriff Blake Wallace is hoping that his office will soon have a new way to address both problems.

Taking advantage of a little-used federal program that's been around since 1996, Wallace recently submitted an application to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for six of his deputies and two of his jailers to be trained to place detainers on illegal immigrants already in or entering the Duplin County justice system.

Those detainers, he explained, would identify and allow those illegal alien criminals to be deported after they serve their prison sentences.

"There is an increasing gang activity problem, particularly with MS-13 (a traditionally Hispanic gang) and studies have shown that the majority of those gang members are illegal aliens. This is going to be another resource or tool in our arsenal to combat that problem," Wallace said.

Currently, he continued, not only are his deputies not qualified to make those decisions, but they also don't have the ability to even definitively determine the status of suspected illegal immigrants.

If approved, Duplin would become only the fourth sheriff's office in North Carolina to be given such authority and the first in the eastern part of the state. There is no time table on when the program might be implemented.

The other counties are Mecklenburg, Gaston and Alamance.

The purpose of the program, Wallace stressed, is not to begin hunting for illegal immigrants.

"That's not what this program is designed to do," Wallace said. "It's designed to identify folks who have already been involved in criminal activities."

And according to Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, the program works.

"The program is working even better than I had hoped for," he said. "It's been very successful."

Since beginning the program in May 2006, his office has tagged 1,350 illegal aliens for deportation -- all of whom had been involved in criminal activities.

"We don't deal with them until they have been arrested for a state or county offense," Pendergraph said. "I told all the immigrant community what we were going to do before we implemented the program and many of the people we're deporting are preying on those immigrants and that immigrant community anyway."

Even still, when implemented in the other counties, the program has caused some discomfort among immigrant populations, particularly Latinos.

In Duplin, though, they might be willing to give it a chance.

Alex Asbun, El Centro Latino de Duplin Inc. Board of Directors chairman, said that while he hasn't been approached about the program yet, he does plan to talk to people and find out how exactly it will work and what concerns might be out in the community.

"The obvious concern will be of deputies targeting Latinos," he said. "That's always the big concern, but we'll explore it and see how it's working. We'll trust (Wallace's) judgment."