Orange County’s reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants, documented or undocumented, may be dented by the sheriff department’s participation in the federal “Secure Communities” program.

At issue is whether Secure Communities significantly differs from the controversial federal 287(g) program.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners last night asked Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass to explain the county’s participation, beginning this month, in Secure Communities. The pilot federal project grants the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation automatic access to the personal information of people arrested in Orange County.

The Commission heard Pendergrass’ report, but took no action.

The program is intended to help federal authorities locate illegal immigrants who have also been charged with crimes unrelated to immigration, including traffic violations, Pendergrass said.

“The system is simply that, when you fingerprint someone, it goes through the system, and we get a correct identification of the individual,” Pendergrass said, referring to the DHS and FBI databases. “The system does go through the right side of Homeland Security, but we do notand they do not tell usif someone we have fingerprinted is someone who is an alien.”

Pendergrass insisted the program did not violate Orange County’s 2007 resolution opposing participation in the federal 287(g) program, which marshals local law enforcement agencies to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants.

“I never know if somebody is wanted by immigration, because they don’t tell me, and we have no way of knowing,” he said. “We’re not like Alamance County, and other counties, where they enter into an agreementand they hold in the jail illegal aliens.”

Instead, Pendergrass said, “If they call us and tell us, ‘You have Joe Blow, and he’s an alien,’ that’s their business, and we don’t get involved. If he’s there on charges, he has to have all his charges resolved in Orange before immigration can touch him. It’s just a simple thing people have misunderstood.”

Orange County Attorney Geoff Gledhill said at the meeting that he did not think Pendergrass’ participation in the program violates the county resolution, but noted that Secure Communities relates to “certain provisions of section 287(g).”

However, the difference between the two programs is slim, said Marty Rosenbluth, staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Justice. He told the Commissioners that Secure Communities “doesn’t just violate the spirit and intent of this resolution, but it also violates the color of the law.”

“The effect of joining Secure Communities is to give ICE unfettered access to immigration information about members of the Orange County community,” he wrote in a letter to the board. “Once ICE has matched the fingerprints of a detainee in Orange County jail, it is up to ICE, not the sheriff, to decide whether or not ICE will take action against the person,” the letter went on. According to ICE, once a person is identified through the Secure Communities program, “[r]esponses may include such actions as: placing the alien immediately in ICE custody to avoid release; conducting personal interviews to gather additional information from the alien; placing detainers; and issuing charging documents.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

While Pendergrass distinguished Orange County’s immigration program from 287(g) participating counties such as Alamance, Wake and Mecklenburg, he said that soon, all of North Carolina would be reporting fingerprinting data to federal immigration authorities.

“By the end of the year, and maybe the first few months of 2010, the whole system in the state of North Carolina will be just like ours,” he said.