The number of jailed illegal immigrants is growing in Columbia County and they are adding to the burden on taxpayers.
The Columbia County Detention Center temporarily houses all people arrested for crimes in Columbia County, including illegal residents.
Of the average 250 inmates at the county jail, about 7 or 8 percent are illegal immigrants, said Capt. Brett Carani, who oversees detention center operations.
"It is a fast-growing problem," Carani said, adding that five years ago the jail's illegal immigrant population was closer to 1 or 2 percent.
The majority of the illegal immigrants are from Spanish-speaking countries, Carani said.
"There's nothing we can do other than quit arresting people, which is not what we're in business to do," he said. "They are treated no differently than any other person."
It costs about $62 a day to hold an inmate, which includes food, the building and administrative costs, jail staff, miscellaneous costs such as medical and dental treatment, and transportation. If the jail houses an average of 15 illegal immigrants, then area taxpayers spend nearly $340,000 per year to support them.
"It is a strain on our resources," Carani said.
The captain said his staff doesn't make any special considerations for illegal immigrants who, along with other inmates, are housed in different areas of the detention center based on their crimes.
Language barriers have not been much of an issue, Carani said.
"I am pretty fortunate with the community that we have," he said. "I have quite a few Spanish-speaking (officers)."
At least one Spanish-speaking officer works each shift. Other languages are translated with the assistance of Fort Gordon, community volunteers, or using the Internet.
Most of the illegal immigrants in the jail are not incarcerated for violent crimes or felonies.
"Most of the time, they are in here for traffic violations -- DUI, driving with no insurance, driving with no license," Carani said. "Just because they don't have a license doesn't mean they won't drive."
When someone is arrested, booking officers at the jail ask for identification, and immigration documents if they are suspected to be in the country illegally. If they are suspected of being illegal immigrants, jailers notify U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents, who run the fingerprints.
"Sometimes we'll catch them with a false document," Carani said. "They'll have a fake green card, fake I.D., fake driver's license. If they present that to law enforcement, it becomes a felony."
Illegal immigrants charged with a felony are flagged and immediately deported if they are found in the country again, Carani said.
If illegal immigrants are found or plead guilty during the court process, they often choose jail time in lieu of a fine, Carani said.
Once illegal immigrants complete their sentence, Carani said, his staff notifies the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Carani said staff from ICE's Office of Detention and Removal usually retrieve the illegal immigrants within four or five days.
They are picked up "as quickly as possible," said Temple Black, public affairs spokesman from the New Orleans press office.
The illegal immigrants usually are taken to the ICE detention facility in Atlanta while staff runs background checks to see if they have been deported before. If so, the illegal immigrants are immediately deported. Otherwise, illegal immigrants can request asylum or make other requests before a Department of Justice judge, Black said.
"Our detention and removal guys, they have to work with the country that each individual is from," Black said. "Each country has to agree to take citizens back."
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