Times Staff Writers

The number of Los Angeles County jail inmates identified as suspected illegal immigrants nearly doubled in the year since the Sheriff’s Department started investigating their legal status.

The number red-flagged to face possible deportation once they serve their sentences went from 3,050 in 2005 to 5,829 last year.

The numbers skyrocketed from 658 in the second quarter of 2005 to 1,685 in the third quarter of 2006.

“The benefit is these people who are committing crimes aren’t being released onto our streets to commit more crimes. They are being removed from the United States,” said Jim Hayes, director of the Los Angeles field office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


The sharp increase in potential deportees is believed to be the result of more screening, rather than an increase in the number of illegal immigrants in the jails.

Eight screeners have been assigned to the jail since late 2005, resulting in the screening of almost 10,000 convicts. In addition, the number of federal agents assigned to the jail was doubled in October.

The screening includes running a convict’s name through an ICE database to see if he or she is on a list of people previously deported or otherwise found to have violated immigration laws.

The process also includes using interview techniques developed by the immigration agency to find the person’s place of birth and immigration status, checking government records for birth and Social Security records and calling relatives for information.

Some backers of the program say it shows that illegal immigrants have been playing a significant role in the county’s crime problems, and they argue for greater screening by local police.

“It’s a good start, but they need to go further,” said Paul Orfanedes, litigation director for Judicial Watch, a group that has sued law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, alleging that they fail to enforce immigration laws.

The jail screening program has been controversial, however, because of concerns that immigrants in the general community might become hesitant to report crimes to local police if they knew sheriff’s employees were helping in deportations. Critics say immigration matters should be handled only by federal officers.

“If the immigration community starts identifying local police with federal immigration authorities, then they will be distrustful of the police and become hesitant to report crimes, whether they are victims or witnesses,” said Hector Villagra, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California’s Orange County office.


Inmates identified as suspected illegal immigrants are transferred to federal authorities for deportation as soon as they complete their sentences in county custody, said Chief Marc L. Klugman, head of the correctional services division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jails.

Nearly 7,000 were transferred last year to federal authorities for deportation hearings.

The trial program nearly did not get off the ground, as immigrants rights groups sought to block it.

The 2005 vote by the county Board of Supervisors to launch the effort was 3 to 2, with the board limiting screening to those convicted of crimes.


Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Gloria Molina voted against it.

“We are experiencing multiple problems in our county jails, including incidents of violence and an acute shortage of sheriff’s deputies,” Molina said last week.

“These already put a severe strain on the Sheriff’s Department’s budget. We can ill afford to divert even more resources to do the federal government’s job,” she added.

Federal officials estimated that about 40,000 of the 170,000 inmates who go through L.A. County jails each year are in the United States illegally.


After immigration agents trained eight sheriff’s custody assistants in December 2005 to delve more deeply into each convict’s background, there was a significant increase in screening.

Until they got involved, two federal agents worked one shift a week in the jails and were able to interview only about 20 foreign-born inmates in a day.

The number of convicts interviewed went from 4,140 in 2005 to 9,976 last year, as the jail population stayed about the same, officials said.

In addition to the sheriff’s personnel deployed a year ago, immigration officials assigned a second shift of federal agents to the jails in October.


Sheriff Lee Baca disagrees with those who say the practice has caused some illegal immigrants not to trust deputies when they need to report crimes.

“It’s one thing to come to the United States to find a better life,” Baca said.

“It’s another thing to come to the United States to commit crimes. Every criminal who is in our country illegally should be deported.”

Some lawful immigrants -- those who are not citizens -- who violate the condition of their stay by being convicted of certain crimes could also be subject to deportation.


Word that the stepped-up enforcement is working comes just days before federal and local law enforcement officials are to hold a summit in Universal City on ways to more effectively combat foreign-born gang members.