Juan Martinez was looking forward to returning to his construction job after a one-month sentence for violating probation on drug charges.
But when he got out of the Orange County jail, he was met by immigration agents bent on deporting the 23-year-old illegal immigrant with $68 in his pocket and few prospects.
More federal agents are more closely watching local jails for potentially tens of thousands of immigrants subject to deportation. Federal officials also are enlisting local authorities to do background checks on people under arrest.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say more jail checks are crucial to preventing serious crimes by illegal immigrants. In December, for example, an illegal immigrant with a history of arrests for assaults and drug offenses shot two Long Beach police officers before he was killed in a gun battle.
About half of the nearly 190,000 illegal immigrants deported last year had criminal records, U.S. authorities said.
Sweeps of jails over the past seven months by ICE agents have netted more than 5,500 people nationwide, and a new system designed to track federal inmates has flagged about 6,000 people at 119 prisons, the agency said.
Past efforts to identify illegal immigrants in jails were haphazard, with federal authorities checking inmate rosters at some lockups weekly at best. Some of the worst immigration violators were allowed back on the streets after doing their time.
Conservative groups are pleased with the new strategy but worry that the emphasis on jail checks is a political gimmick that could divert much-needed personnel and other resources from stopping illegal immigrants at the border.
Immigrant rights groups say illegal immigrants might stop reporting child abuse or domestic violence to protect husbands or fathers from deportation. They also worry that people who have been stopped for minor offenses or wrongly arrested will be deported.
Starting in 2008, ICE plans to assign 220 more employees to jails through its Criminal Alien Program. The agency would not say how many employees are now in the program.
The training program is already in place in county jails in California and North Carolina and in the Arizona state prison system.
The four counties in Southern California that participate have identified more than 4,600 illegalimmigrants since October, Kice said. In Mecklenberg County, N.C., nearly 1,300 have been flagged in one year, said Sgt. Quinn Stansell.