Los Angeles County sheriff’s personnel would assume a greater role in the processing and deportation of illegal immigrants identified in the jails under a newly proposed agreement with the federal government, placing an “inordinate strain” on the department, according to a report released Thursday.
The Sheriff’s Department signed an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2005 authorizing its custody assistants to check the immigration status of foreign-born inmates and turn them over to the federal government if appropriate.
The new agreement proposed by ICE would require those same assistants to complete all of the required paperwork to process illegal immigrants for possible deportation, according to the report prepared by Merrick Bobb, a special counsel to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The degree to which the proposed agreement turns the Sheriff’s Department into the “primary enforcer of federal immigration law is indeed breathtaking,” Bobb wrote in the nearly 50-page report. In addition, the county would not be reimbursed for the extra work, Bobb wrote.
The added responsibilities would require that the custody assistants begin the screening process before inmates are convicted, rather than after conviction, contrary to the supervisors’ original direction to the Sheriff’s Department, Bobb said.
Between 2005 and last month, more than 37,000 foreign-born inmates have been interviewed. Roughly 44% have been turned over to immigration authorities.
Sheriff’s Capt. Gerald Cooper said that the department is still negotiating with the federal government but that there are concerns over whether the new responsibilities would be in line with what the supervisors wanted. The department plans to take the agreement to the board soon, he said.
“It would change what our duties are,” he said. “We have problems with it and we are trying to resolve those.”
Cooper said, however, that he hopes the screening will continue. “We think it’s an important and valuable program,” he said.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich wants to make sure the custody assistants will not be required to do significantly more work, said his deputy, Anna Pembedjian. But Antonovich believes that the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be able to come to an agreement, she said.
The jail screening is important, Pembedjian said, both to protect public safety and save taxpayers’ money.
“To the extent we have individuals committing crimes and being released back out into the community, we have an obligation to assist ICE in the proper processing of those individuals,” she said.
But immigrant rights advocates raised concerns about whether the Sheriff’s Department should be doing immigration screening at all.
“Immigration law enforcement should remain the purview of the federal government,” said Chris Newman of the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “The report is a warning sign that the Sheriff’s Department’s goals of protecting all county residents regardless of immigration status will be undermined by continued participation in the program.”
Bobb’s study reported that more than a quarter of the inmates transferred from the jail into immigration custody from July 2008 to June 2009 had been charged with minor crimes, such as displaying false identification or disorderly conduct. Some of those inmates may have more serious prior criminal records.