Calif. Sheriff seeks illegal immigrant inmates
By Jennifer McLain
Whittier Daily News
LOS ANGELES — The county could be expanding a nationwide deportation program aimed at identifying illegal immigrant gang members serving time in jail.
Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors requested that more officers zero in on gang members who are in the country illegally.
"No question about it in our county, gang members pose an ever-present problem that is yet to be resolved," said Sheriff Lee Baca. "And if there's undocumented gang members, what can we do to get ahead of that in any way that we think is appropriate?"
For nearly three years, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has participated in the 287(g) program, which is a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The program trains deputies to interview inmates suspected of being illegal immigrants.
At the Board of Supervisors' direction Tuesday, Baca was told to explore whether more staffing is needed for the program, and to make interviewing gang members a top priority.
Civil rights groups opposing the program believe that focusing on gang members will further contribute to racial profiling, and that it gives deportation authority to officers who should be more focused on community safety.
"The American dream means as much for an innocent person wrongly accused of gang membership, or a lawfully present person wrongly deported, as it does for you and me," said Ahilan T. Arulanantham, director of immigrants' rights and national security at the ACLU of Southern California.
Officials said that inmates who are interviewed are primarily Spanish speakers from several different countries. Race is not a factor in interviews, said Lt. Kevin Kuykendall, who heads the classification unit at the Inmate Reception Center.
"If we have any indication that a person is not born in the United States, then that is who we're looking at," Kuykendall said. "That means England as much as it means Mexico."
Since it was implemented in Los Angeles County, 20,000 inmates have been interviewed and more than 11,000 have been recommended to ICE for possible deportation.
Officials said of that total, 90 percent have been deported.
Nationwide, more than 60,000 people suspected of being in the country illegally were identified through the program.
Nearly 760 officers have been trained and certified throughout the program, and 45 agencies across the country - including the Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino county sheriff's departments - participate.
"It has been a very valuable partnership for us in Southern California," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for ICE. "The critical role of the sheriff's department is to identify individuals in jail who are potentially deportable."
The ICE-trained sheriff's deputies begin the paperwork to ensure that those inmates who entered the country illegal go into ICE custody.
On any given day, up to 40 Los Angeles County inmates are interviewed.
The deputies ask inmates where they were born, what their parents' names are and if they have legal residence documents.
These interviews are performed the day of the inmates' release. Once it is determined that an inmate entered the country illegally, the inmate is then taken in waist shackles to the Federal Building.
ICE will then give the inmate two options: voluntary deportation, or a federal trial.
Most inmates chose voluntary deportation, although many come back illegally to the United States and end up back in the county's jails, officials said.
Kuykendall said this program has been invaluable - especially in opening up more beds for inmates.
The average housing cost per inmate is $53.45 per day.
"We have more inmates than jail beds," Kuykendall said. "Any time we can clear jail beds, and possibly deport someone and not have them back in the jail bed, that keeps it open for a local criminal."
But more work needs to be done, officials said.
Last month Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represents portions of the San Gabriel Valley, urged the training of five additional deputies to exclusively conduct immigration interviews in the jail.
The board approved the plan so that by Sept. 1, there will be 12 interviewers.
The decision came after a trip to Washington, D.C., where Antonovich discovered that only 35 percent of county jail inmates with questionable immigration status were interviewed.
"He wants to see the program expand so that every single person is interviewed," said Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy to Antonovich.
Copyright 2008 Copyright 2008 MediaNews Group, Inc. and Los Angeles Newspaper Group, Inc.
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