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WASHINGTON - Utah needs at least 22 more federal immigration agents, according to letters sent Wednesday by members of Congress to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"Our jails are full. The crime rates continue to increase, and we can no longer let this problem escalate," reads one of the letters, signed by Utah's two senators and three representatives.
The requests follow meetings Utah's federal delegation held with state lawmakers and the letters cite efforts by the state Legislature to fight against undocumented immigration.
The Legislature passed, and the governor is expected to sign, a comprehensive immigration bill that would allow police officers to enforce immigration law and require state employers to verify the legality of their workers. The bill would not go into effect until July 2009. A state task force on immigration will meet this summer.
The architect of the state bill, Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, has long criticized Congress for failing to reform immigration laws.
"I supposed we should be pleased that our delegation is finally doing something," he said. "You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that this should have been done months ago."
Utah's senators and congressmen requested 12 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents focused on deportation to help area police who soon will be designated to enforce immigration law.
These new agents would work primarily in the southern part of the state around Interstate 15.
Chertoff appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to discuss efforts to restrict illegal immigration. Responding to a question asked by Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon, Chertoff said he wants to help foster cooperation with police officers in what is called the 287(g) program, but he needs more money from Congress.
Cannon recently created a stir by saying immigration was a federal - not state - problem. But when pressed soon after, he stressed he believes cooperation between federal agents and local police officers as one area where states should play a role.
The other congressional letter requests 10 more ICE agents to investigate crimes attributed to undocumented immigrants. If approved, two each would be stationed in St. George, Provo and Ogden and four in Salt Lake City to assist the 25 agents already working in the state.
"Numerous illegal aliens are committing crimes in Utah communities with virtual impunity," the letter reads.
The letters rely on crime statistics gathered by the Utah Department of Public Safety. A department spokesman, Jeff Nigbur, said statisticians have not determined the crime rates of immigrants.
A study released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California found that immigrants were less likely to commit crime than those born in the United States. The study did not differentiate between documented and undocumented immigrants.
Utah's delegation expects Chertoff to respond to the request for more deportation agents by Oct. 1, but included no deadline for their request for more agents in the investigations office.
* NATE CARLISLE and CATHY MCKITRICK contributed to this story.