Baca’s Plan to Screen Inmates OKd

Times Staff Writer

A controversial plan to train clerks at the Los Angeles County jail to identify inmates who are illegal immigrants and turn them over to immigration officials was approved Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors.

After hours of intense debate, the board voted 3 to 2 for the plan, the first time a California jailer has agreed to screen inmates for immigration violations.

“People who come here illegally and commit crimes need to be prosecuted, do their time and then return to their home country,” Sheriff Lee Baca said Monday.


Currently, two federal immigration agents stationed at Twin Towers Jail interview as many as 20 convicted foreign-born inmates daily.

About 80% are placed in federal custody for possible deportation or prosecution on federal immigration charges.

But federal officials estimate that about 40,000 of the 170,000 inmates who come through the county jail each year are in the United States illegally.

Under the plan, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would train six custodial assistants employed by the county to interview convicted inmates on their immigration status. The clerks would be supervised by federal immigration agents, who would continue to do interviews.

Jails Chief Chuck Jackson estimated that the additional interviewers could identify as many as 100 illegal immigrants a day.

He assured board members that sheriff’s deputies on patrol would not get involved in identifying illegal immigrants.


Supporting the pilot program were Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe.

Yaroslavsky expressed concern that jail officials would refer inmates to federal custody before they were tried and convicted. After introducing an amendment that would allow the Sheriff’s Department to refer only illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, Yaroslavsky indicated support for the measure on a trial basis.

“We owe no obligation to someone who has been convicted of a crime and is here illegally,” he said.

Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Gloria Molina voted against the plan.

Molina said that immigration was a federal issue and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had declined Baca’s repeated requests to increase the number of agents at the jail. “I worry about taking more ownership and responsibility without any benefit,” she said.

She said she also was concerned that if jail officials were required to ask inmates about their immigration status, other county workers might be asked to do the same.

Perhaps, she said, the county might ask “nurses to carry out that work. We don’t know when we’re going to ask mental health workers to carry out that work.”


Burke said she couldn’t vote for the measure because sheriff’s representatives were unable to tell her exactly what kind of criminal convictions would lead them to refer an undocumented immigrant to federal authorities.

Critics of the measure included federal and local public defenders who were concerned that inmates’ due process rights would be violated if they were questioned before conviction.

Other speakers represented the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. They argued that the county would become liable to litigation if it assumed federal enforcement functions.

Federal Public Defender Maria Stratton questioned whether federal immigration officials could handle additional referrals from the Sheriff’s Department.

Jails chief Jackson said that Baca had asked top federal officials such as the undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson, to make more agents available to process undocumented inmates at least twice in 2004, but had received no assurances.

“There is no guarantee that ICE is going to add more resources or ratchet up their operation,” Stratton said. “It’s like the sheriff is backing up airplanes around an airport without any place for them to land. ICE isn’t picking everybody up as it is; why do they think ICE can handle more?”


The Los Angeles Police Department has a long-standing policy, called Special Order 40, against enforcing immigration laws. The policy was created to encourage undocumented residents to report crimes.

Some critics of the sheriff’s plan said that it might create a chilling effect on undocumented immigrants who wish to report crimes. One speaker at Tuesday’s board meeting said she was an undocumented immigrant who had been a victim of spousal abuse for 11 years.

“If this policy was in place,” she said later, “I would have never contacted the police no matter how much abuse there was because I would be afraid that my immigration status would be at issue.”

But Baca disagrees with those who say that he wants to enforce immigration laws.

“It’s not that the Sheriff’s Department is taking up the responsibility of the federal government,” he said.

“We don’t recommend deportation to the federal government, and we’re not enforcing their policies,” Baca said. “All we’re doing is asking questions that are the result of arrests.

“This has nothing to do with immigration enforcement,” Baca said. “This has to do with identifying and prosecuting convicted criminals.”