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Baca Backs Shift in Inmate Probes

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is seeking approval for a plan that would allow sheriff’s deputies to interview foreign-born jail inmates to determine their immigration status.

Backers said the change would help identify more illegal immigrants who should be deported and generate millions of dollars in additional funding from the federal government, which reimburses local jails for holding undocumented residents.

Currently, two federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement interview foreign-born inmates before they are released from the Twin Towers Correctional Facility near downtown to determine whether their criminal convictions or immigration status warrant deportation. But because of the large number of foreign-born convicts in Los Angeles County, agents are able to screen just an estimated 12% of all immigrant inmates.

Last year, the agents interviewed 6,129 immigrants and began deportation proceedings for 4,646 of them.

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Baca is asking the county Board of Supervisors to allow six deputies to conduct the interviews. He said the deputies could cover about half of the jail’s population of immigrant inmates.

Immigration lawyers and advocates fear that the proposal could presage the wider use of deputies for immigration enforcement. Like the Los Angeles Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department generally avoids enforcing immigration laws and limits its collaboration with federal officials. The agencies do so to create an atmosphere of trust among immigrants who might need to call on local authorities to report crimes.

Critics worry that the sheriff’s collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement would send the wrong message to immigrant communities, making people here illegally less likely to cooperate with deputies in the field.

“In cases of domestic violence, for example,” said Raquel Fonte, an immigration attorney with the nonprofit advocacy group Public Counsel, “they will find themselves trapped in abusive relationships and living in complete fear and not able to access services and protections that are available to them.”

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Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a proponent of the sheriff’s plan, said he doubted that the effort would have such a chilling effect.

It’s “a straw-man argument by those who want us to do nothing to enforce” immigration laws, he said.

Antonovich called the proposal a “win-win situation” that would ease the burden on county taxpayers and deport potentially dangerous criminals.

Each year, the County Jail system processes about 170,000 inmates, and federal officials estimate that a fourth of them are illegal immigrants. But with just a fraction of the foreign-born being questioned, officials say it is impossible to know exactly how many illegal immigrants are in the system and how much the county should receive in federal compensation. Although it estimates that just 10% to 12% of foreign-born inmates were counted, the county received $13.8 million from the federal government for housing illegal immigrants last year.

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Earlier this week, dozens of inmates bunched against the exit of the Inmate Reception Center, awaiting their release. The immigration agents began by interviewing as many of those men as possible, working down a list of foreign-born immigrants provided by the Sheriff’s Department. But they never finish the list.

“I guarantee you that some of the people right there, walking out the door, are criminal aliens,” said Chief Chuck Jackson, head of the jail system, as he walked past the prisoners.

Interviews are conducted in a dimly lighted room with two computers, a set of plastic chairs and a concrete floor. The computers are connected to several law enforcement databases that agents use to confirm inmates’ immigration status, criminal history and other information.

Giovanni Orlando Mendez Gonzales was among the first men to be pulled out of the release line. An immigration agent escorted him into the office, sat him down and began questioning him in Spanish:

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“Where were you born? How long have you lived here? Do you go by other names? Do you have a green card?”

Gonzales, who had been serving time for misdemeanor battery, quickly admitted that he had crossed the border illegally four years ago. Though he has not been convicted of a felony, it was the second time he had been to jail; he eluded the immigration interview during his first incarceration.

The agent determined that Gonzales would, in fact, face deportation proceedings, but it was still unclear which country would take him. At the time of his first arrest, Gonzales said he was from Guatemala, but at his most recent arrest he said he was from Mexico.

The agent interviewing him suspected that he was Guatemalan but said Gonzales wanted to be deported to Mexico so he would have an easier time crossing back into the United States.

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“Sing the Mexican national anthem,” the agent ordered him.

Gonzales began: “Mexicanos, al grito de guerra. El acero aprestad y ... “

And then his memory failed him.


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