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Send Juvenile Offenders Back to Mexico? : Deportation: The Probation Department says it would keep youths close to their families as well as free up beds in Juvenile Hall.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County probation officials are recommending that some Mexican juvenile offenders be sent back to Mexico to serve their sentences--a move that would reunite them with their families but, critics charged, might violate their rights.

“I would have to do some soul-searching on this, but this sounds like an incredibly horrible” idea, said Kathryn E. Terry, a leading Orange County immigration attorney and a director of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights. “I have a lot of reservations about this.”

Terry and other immigration rights advocates worried that turning over juvenile offenders to Mexican officials would in effect deport the youngsters without the benefit of a deportation hearing.

County officials, however, see the program--modeled on a similar one in San Diego--as a way of helping rehabilitate youngsters and at the same time freeing up badly needed beds in Juvenile Hall, which is overcrowded.

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“It’s a way of killing three birds with one stone,” said Brent F. Romney, the supervising district attorney in charge of juveniles and gangs. “It reunites the kids with their families, saves some money, and frees up some space in Juvenile Hall.”

According to the Probation Department recommendation, the program would cost $22,500 for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends June 30. It would affect an estimated six youths a month, which would mean that that many beds would become available for other offenders.

That comes to 30 beds during the five remaining months of this fiscal year, and probation officials put the value of that bed space at $71,160.

Only minor offenders would be considered for the program--no youths convicted of felonies, for instance, would be eligible. And only youngsters who did not have “identifiable responsible parties in Orange County to whom they could be released” might be sent out of the country.

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The fact that only convicted youths would be considered helped ease some concerns among immigrant rights advocates, but many questions remained.

Charles Wheeler, director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, said the program might prevent youths from learning of rights they have under immigration law. When offenders are turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Wheeler said, they are given the names and phone numbers of immigrant rights organizations, and they are allowed to call them.

“If we turn these kids directly over to the Mexican authorities, we could be removing them from the United States without their ever knowing what their rights are,” Wheeler said. “It’s very strange that kids could be removed from this country without it going through INS.”

Lilia Powell, executive director of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights, expressed concern as well.

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“We have to be careful about any denials of due process,” she said. “This is an easy way out, but I would be afraid that it might have problems.”

In its recommendation, however, the Probation Department stresses the rehabilitation advantages of having Mexican youth offenders serve out their sentences closer to their families. Family support often helps offenders break their criminal habits once they are released, officials and immigrant advocates agreed.

“You’ve got individuals who are breaking the law,” said Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, chairman of the county board, which oversees the Probation Department budget. “At least this will create a process to reunify them with their families.”

The supervisors are scheduled to consider the proposal at their next meeting on Tuesday. The item is expected to appear on the board’s consent calendar, indicating that no opposition from supervisors is expected.

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But immigrant rights proponents are likely to register their objections.

Said Terry: “I’m going to be there with a flag.”


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