ATLANTA -- Seven congressmen have asked the head of the federal immigration agency to explain why states with fewer illegal immigrants are getting a new enforcement program ahead of Georgia.
In a letter dated Thursday, all seven of Georgia's Republican congressmen invited U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton to meet with them on Capitol Hill.
At issue is a federal program called Secure Communities, which allows fingerprint information to be checked against FBI criminal history records and biometrics-based immigration records kept by the Department of Homeland Security.
Supporters of the program say it simplifies information-sharing between local and federal law enforcement agencies and is aimed at identifying only illegal immigrants accused of breaking the law. But civil liberties and immigrant rights groups say it could encourage racial profiling or make illegal immigrants afraid to report crimes for fear of being deported.
ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez confirmed receipt of the letter Friday and said ICE will respond "through the appropriate channels."
She said "a substantial number" of Georgia counties this year will receive the enforcement program, which is to go nationwide by 2013.
The program is now being used by law enforcement agencies in nine of Georgia's 159 counties and is expected to be active in the entire state by the end of the 2013 fiscal year.
All seven of the Republicans signed the letter but none of the state's six Democratic congressmen did.
The seven initially wrote to Morton on Oct. 13 asking that ICE implement
Secure Communities throughout Georgia "as soon as possible" and noting that priority in the deployment process was being given to high-risk jurisdictions.
Elliot Williams, ICE's assistant director for congressional relations, said in a letter Nov. 17 in addition to considering risk, the agency must also consider whether field offices in each state have the capacity to respond to identification inquiries 24 hours a day.
In the letter Thursday, the congressmen requested that the rollout of Secure Communities be "pursued sooner and more efficiently than it has currently been."
They point out that the Pew Hispanic Center estimates Georgia's illegal immigrant population at 425,000. That ranks Georgia at No. 7 in terms of states with the highest estimated number of illegal immigrants, according to Pew.
"Our question to you now is simple," the Georgia lawmakers wrote. "Why would you utilize such valuable and seemingly scarce resources to fully activate Secure Communities in such states as Hawaii and West Virginia, whose total illegal immigrant populations are estimated at 35,000 and 10,000, respectively, before Georgia?"
"It seems as if ICE is not responsibly combating the ever-mounting problem of illegal immigration in this nation in order to best utilize the resources it has been granted by Congress," they wrote.
The seven congressmen who signed the letter include Paul Broun of Athens, Tom Graves of Ranger, Phil Gingrey of Marietta, Jack Kingston of Savannah, John Linder of Duluth, Tom Price of Roswell and Lynn Westmoreland of Grantville.