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County commits to funding 287G program

Whatever the cost, Henderson County commissioners are prepared to pay to continue partnering with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in the 287G program, which aids in identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants arrested for violating state laws. That was the clear message commissioners delivered on Wednesday to Sheriff Lowell Griffin, who has said the ICE program, once considered a way to land federal money to support local law enforcement efforts, is a burden on local taxpayers that does not pay itself.

 

“The board is committed to the program that keeps criminals out of our society,” board chair Grady Hawkins told Sheriff Griffin during the board's regular meeting on Wednesday. “Whatever funding you think you need as we work through the budget process, this board will find it because of the impact on the safety of our community… Again, as we work through the budget process, if you need additional funding, we will find it.”

The board summoned Griffin to appear a couple of months after residents implored the board to make sure the sheriff continued the county's partnership with ICE, which has existed for 10 years. The faction of conservatives in favor of the local-federal enforcement partnership countered an effort on the other side urging the newly elected sheriff to drop the ICE partnership. After Griffin was elected last year, a group of residents presented him with a petition urging an end the 287G program. Griffin said he would consider it because 287G was costing the county money. He has said he was reviewing it and had not yet decided whether to renew a contract that expires on June 30.

Reimbursements for expenses that were part of the program initially had been discontinued, creating a funding gap that is “burdensome to local taxpayers," Griffin said. "There is no funding for the local program from the federal government and continuing the current contract will require additional county funding.” Commissioners quickly and unanimously committed to exactly that — additional funding.

Reading from a prepared statement, Griffin told the board that “it has come to my attention that there have been conversations, questions and even petitions concerning the federal 287G program. The content of most of these questions and conversations detail misinformation associated with the program” and ICE. “I would like to … set the record straight concerning operations in Henderson County.”

“ICE detainers are placed on criminal aliens regardless of participation in the 287G program and Henderson County will continue to honor these detainers,” he said. “Regardless of the 287G program, the Henderson County Sheriff’s office has no authority, and has never had the authority, to participate in any ICE operations outside the walls of the jail.”

The sheriff’s office, he said, “only becomes involved in matters of immigration status after the person has been charged with a state crime and is committed” to the county jail.

Federal ICE agents have an office in Henderson County and work routinely with jail officers, Griffin said. “The most efficient way to identify the criminal illegal aliens in Henderson County is to work diligently with federal ICE agents and support them as they investigate and detain criminal agents. I intend to serve all the people of Henderson County. My priority will always be to keep the people safe and focus on getting the criminals off our streets. I refuse to offer sanctuary to the criminal element of any demographic.”

Griffin’s presentation came after public comments about 287G urging continuation of the program. Three speakers defended the program, describing it as essential to keeping residents safe. “There is no better use of tax money,” Jane Bilello of Hendersonville told the board. “Without a physical barrier at the southern boarder (of the United States), Henderson County residents need 287G. Continue to support it as you have for the last decade.”

Commissioners asked Griffin about staffing and space needs at the jail.

Commissioner Charles Messer asked Griffin about how much more money he would need to keep the program going, including funding that he needs immediately, not just in the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

“If we have to add two employees, having training for back-up employees, if I were to put a dollar figure of $250,000 on it, would that cover our needs going forward in the current or future budget cycle?” Messer asked.

Griffin said that amount “would cover the needs … just a little more than cover what I anticipate we’re going to need.”

One of the biggest challenges is bed space at the jail, Griffin said. When the county first got involved with the program, the federal government was reimbursing the county for its costs.

Commissioner Michael Edney pointed out, “Then the rules changed, and the money stopped coming in.”

Griffin said that under his predecessor, Charles McDonald, “we were no longer able to house these inmates … The jail population has grown so much that the formula shows the jail at capacity. We are not able to provide the beds.”

Griffin said the paperwork involved in processing detainees is demanding, and his officers must attend training to maintain their certifications, which costs staff time and money.

“I appreciate that the safety of our citizens is number one," Commissioner Rebecca McCall told Griffin. "In some cases, 287G is inhibiting the office from doing the job they need to do and causing additional work and bureaucracy that may not be necessary and may be redundant … I will be in support of any funding to continue the program if that is the decision you make … Our detention center is overpopulated. It’s past time that we need to look at why and what we can do about that. We need to find ways to house people who are there … because of drugs and other things.”

Hawkins said, “You currently have five deputies trained in 287G. I would assume that those five would only need the one-week review (for certification renewals). So basically, the decision is yours as to whether to continue to do with what you have or whether whatever funding you think you need as we work through the budget process, this board will find it because of the impact on the safety of our community. Again, as we work through the budget process, if you need additional funding, we’ll find it.”