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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

L.A. County extends project to identify illegal immigrants in its jails

Sheriff's custody assistants will continue to interview suspected undocumented inmates and pass their findings on to federal immigration officials for possible deportation under a program that began in 2006.
By Robert Faturechi
The Los Angeles Times
October 13, 2010

Despite protests from immigrant rights advocates, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors extended a collaboration Tuesday with federal officials to identify illegal immigrants who wind up in county jails.

Several dozen protesters attended the meeting to oppose a program in which non-sworn Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department employees interview suspected undocumented inmates and pass on their findings to immigration officials for possible deportation. Many said the Sheriff's Department risks isolating the county's immigrant communities by continuing the 4-year-old program.

But sheriff's officials touted the collaboration as a way to remove criminals from immigrant communities. The department resisted an initial proposal from federal officials that would have forced sheriff's employees to take on even more responsibility in processing illegal immigrants for possible deportation, including interviewing inmates before they were convicted. That practice, sheriff's officials and activists alike agreed, could have resulted in the deportation of undocumented inmates who had been jailed for crimes they did not commit.

"The sheriff does not want local law enforcement to enforce federal law," department spokesman Steve Whitmore said.

Since the program began in 2006, sheriff's custody assistants have interviewed more than 52,000 inmates, about 20,000 of whom have had holds placed on them by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Whitmore said gang members, high-level criminals and inmates who have somehow indicated they might be foreign-born are targeted for post-conviction immigration interviews.

But in a report released last year, more than a quarter of the inmates sent from jail to immigration custody during a one-year period were found to have been jailed on minor crimes.

Merrick Bobb, a special counsel to the county who headed up that report, said the department's stated priorities with the renewed agreement are targeting violent and high-level offenders.

"How it will work out in practice will remain to be seen," Bobb said.

But Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative nonprofit group, said illegal immigrants should be deported no matter how serious their crimes.

"There seems to be this idea that unless you commit a heinous crime, you should be immune from any consequence for having violated the immigration law," he said. "The county sheriff should turn them over to federal immigration authorities."

The extension unanimously approved Tuesday is set to last three years, but county supervisors asked for regular reports from the Sheriff's Department to help ensure that inmates do not face deportation through the partnership before being convicted of a crime.