Juan Martinez was looking forward to returning to his construction job after a one-month sentence for violating probation on drug charges. But when he got out of the Orange County jail, he was met by immigration agents bent on deporting the 23-year-old illegal immigrant to Mexico.U.S. jails and prisons have become strategic chokepoints in the search for illegal immigrants.
More federal agents are more closely watching local jails for potentially tens of thousands of immigrants subject to deportation. Federal officials also are enlisting local authorities to do background checks on people under arrest.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say more jail checks are crucial to preventing serious crimes by illegal immigrants. In December, for example, an illegal immigrant with a history of arrests for assaults and drug offenses shot two Long Beach police officers before he was killed in a gun battle.
“This isn’t really an immigration issue. It’s a public safety issue,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. “You can be sure there’ll be a finger-pointing drill at the end of the day if they do something evil.” About half of the nearly 190,000 illegal immigrants deported last year had criminal records, U.S. authorities said.
Sweeps of jails over the past seven months by ICE agents have netted more than 5,500 people nationwide, and a new system designed to track federal inmates has flagged about 6,000 people at 119 prisons, the agency said. Past efforts to identify illegal immigrants in jails were haphazard, with federal authorities checking inmate rosters at some lockups weekly at best. Some of the worst immigration violators were allowed back on the streets after doing their time.
Conservative groups are pleased with the new strategy but worry that the emphasis on jail checks is a political gimmick that could divert much-needed personnel and other resources from stopping illegal immigrants at the border.
“This is a way to do it that everybody is for but has no real effect on the overall immigration flow,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank. “It shuts up the critics.”Immigrant rights groups say illegal immigrants might stop reporting child abuse or domestic violence to protect husbands or fathers from deportation. They also worry that people who have been stopped for minor offenses or wrongly arrested will be deported.
“It’s a practice that leads to weakening or eliminating civil liberties,” said Nativo Lopez, president of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Political Association. Starting in 2008, ICE plans to assign 220 more employees to jails through its Criminal Alien Program. The agency would not say how many employees are now in the program.
The agency received a $45 million funding increase this year to bolster criminal deportations, said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE. It has requested an additional $31 million next year, which would bring the program’s budget to $168 million.
The funding falls short of paying for putting immigration officers at all the nation’s jails and prisons. But ICE hopes to extend its reach by expanding another program that allows authorities to train local jail officers to screen for illegal immigrants themselves. That program received a nearly $50 million budget increase a tenfold jump for 2007.
The training program is already in place in county jails in California and North Carolina and in the Arizona state prison system. The four counties in Southern California that participate have identified more than 4,600 illegal immigrants since October, Kice said. In Mecklenberg County, N.C., nearly 1,300 have been flagged in one year, said Sgt. Quinn Stansell.
By: Gillian Flaccus