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INS to Add to Agents at County Jail

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pilot program to identify criminal immigrants at the Orange County Jail and then deport them has been so successful that it will be expanded by the end of the year, officials said Thursday.

Since the jail program began July 24, U.S. immigration agents have placed deportation holds on 103 inmates, including illegal immigrants and permanent resident aliens who can still be removed from the United States.

But the program has come under criticism.

Thomas Saenz, general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, expressed concern that inmates may be targeted for deportation before they are tried and convicted.

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“This raises questions about whether an inmate’s due process rights are being violated,” Saenz said. “At least with a conviction, you can presume that the arrest was lawful, but if you target people for deportation before they are convicted, you are doing this without a guarantee that the arrest was lawful.”

Currently, seven U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents are assigned to the County Jail and one to Superior Court Judge David O. Carter’s courtroom. INS officials said four additional agents will be assigned to the jail before the end of the year, and they will be joined by another three when additional funding is available.

Authorities announced the expansion of the program at a news conference held in Carter’s courtroom.

Carter first began the program in his courtroom in 1989 and won national acclaim. But it was later stopped when civil rights activists questioned whether the INS agents violated suspects’ rights by questioning them without attorneys present.

On Thursday, INS spokeswoman Virginia Kice said that immigration agents are not allowed to question inmates about the criminal charges filed against them. The agents’ questions are limited to inquiries about an inmate’s criminal background and birthplace.

Kice said inmates who appear in Carter’s courtroom are questioned about citizenship, while agents assigned to the jail interview only those inmates who are identified as being foreign born in their booking papers.

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Carter, supervising judge of the court’s criminal division, said local officials are encouraged by the program.

“This state court is enthused, optimistic and appreciative of the efforts of the U.S. attorney’s office [in] their efforts to rid this county and state of illegal and dangerous felons,” Carter said.

Gus de la Vina, INS Western regional commissioner, said the program to find and deport immigrant inmates incarcerated in the state jails and prisons means “we are one step closer to shutting the door on criminal aliens in California.”

“Our objective is simple,” De la Vina added. “Identify the criminal aliens, put them in jail, and after time served, remove them from the country.”

INS agents currently interview inmates 18 hours a day, six days a week at the jail, while one agent questions inmates during weekdays in a holding cell next to Carter’s courtroom. When the program is expanded, the agents will be able to work at the jail around the clock throughout the week. Carter’s courtroom will be continue to have a single agent.

According to Carter, 178, or about 29%, of the 613 inmates who appeared before him from Aug. 12--when the program in his courtroom began again--to Aug. 31 were thought to be in the country illegally after being interviewed by an INS agent. They include people from Mexico, England, Iran, Japan, Canada and Israel.

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Statistics released by INS officials show that 548 “foreign-born inmates” were identified at the jail from Aug. 1 to Aug. 31, the first full month of the program. The figures show that 103 of the inmates had deportation holds placed on them. Rogers said that 10 of those inmates scheduled for deportation were permanent resident aliens.

Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Ron Wilkerson said the jail has an average daily population of 5,000 inmates, which means immigrants account for about 10% of the jail’s population.

Statewide, there were 142,078 people in California prisons as of July 31, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katy Corsaut said. Of those, 16,441 inmates had INS holds for deportation and another 7,224 had “potential INS holds,” she added.

INS District Director Richard K. Rogers said the expanded program is part of the Clinton administration’s nationwide crackdown to identify and deport criminal immigrants after they serve jail or prison sentences.

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