City Puts Itself on Immigration Watch

William M. Welch, USA TODAY, Jan. 25, 2006

COSTA MESA, Calif.—Mayor Allan Mansoor says his city has a problem with violent criminals who are in this country illegally, and he wants them sent home.

His solution is to make Costa Mesa the first city in the country to authorize its police officers to begin enforcing federal immigration laws by checking the immigration status of people suspected of serious crimes and gang activity.

It may sound like a simple move—a background check that many assume is already being done. But with federal immigration officers overwhelmed by the flow of undocumented immigrants, it often isn’t, Mansoor and law enforcement officials say.

As a result, many illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes are set free rather than booted from the country when they have served their sentences. In the Los Angeles area alone, thousands of illegal immigrants are estimated to be behind bars.

“It’s false for people to think or assume everyone that is here illegally and commits crimes and goes to prison is subsequently deported,” Mansoor says.

However, what Mansoor sees as a way to stop violent crime, others see as dangerous for the Hispanic community. Critics warn that people may hesitate to call police for help if it could get someone booted from the country. They worry that even if the police set out intending to target only serious criminals who are illegal immigrants, it could lead to wholesale local enforcement of immigration laws.

“The policies are already having the effect of loss of confidence in the police,” says Nativo Lopez, a Latino activist from Santa Ana.

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In addition, this month, two other California counties, Los Angeles and San Bernardino, began having federally trained deputies screen jail inmates for immigration violations. Arizona has an agreement with ICE to do the same in its prison system, federal officials say.

Robert Hines, a special agent at ICE headquarters in Washington who heads the local enforcement program, says he has at least 10 additional pending inquiries from local governments in New England, the South and the Midwest.

“A lot of towns and cities throughout the country are experiencing crime being committed by foreign nationals,” Hines says.

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Mansoor estimates that 10% to 15% of the 400 people taken into Costa Mesa’s jail on an average month are illegal immigrants. Most of those bound over for trial are transferred to the Orange County jail, where Carona estimates 14% of the 5,500 inmates held at any one time are illegal immigrants.

In Los Angeles, where 19,000 people are in seven county jails, the number of illegal immigrants could be 25%, says Marc Klugman, chief of the correctional services division for the sheriff’s department.

Some worry that plans such as Mansoor’s and Carona’s could end up hurting law enforcement. Zeke Hernandez of Santa Ana says many people will be “very hesitant” to report crimes. “There always could be a family member or someone else who may not have proper documents.”

The League of United Latin American Citizens has denounced the plans as “opening the doors for deputies to proceed in a racial profiling mode for certain population groups, denying them full constitutional protection.”

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