Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mixed reviews on immigration agent's first month at Costa Mesa jail
Deportation is sought for 46 who are suspected of felonies and misdemeanors. Illegal-immigration foes are pleased; Latino activists are concerned.
By Jennifer Delson, Times Staff Writer
January 10, 2007

In his first month on the job, the federal agent stationed in the Costa Mesa jail recommended that 46 foreign-born inmates be deported, triggering praise from anti-illegal-immigration activists and concern from local Latinos.

Jim Hayes, Immigration and Customs Enforcement director for the Los Angeles field office, said he was pleased with the effort in Costa Mesa and planned to replicate it in other Southern California city jails. He said Costa Mesa was a good place to start, in part because of community interest.

"ICE is stepping up their resources … both in Orange County and others in our area," Hayes said. "After Sept. 11, every law enforcement agency in the country went into a different mode…. Now we are looking at getting back to all vulnerabilities."

The agent was assigned to the jail in December following a year in which Mayor Allan Mansoor placed emphasis on combating illegal immigration in Costa Mesa. Some county jails check the immigration status of its prisoners, but Costa Mesa is the first Southern California city in recent years to have a permanent immigration officer in its local jail.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the number of those arrested who were sent to a federal judge for deportation proceedings was "higher than we anticipated. But the volume will probably fluctuate significantly" month to month.

Of the 46 suspected illegal immigrants arrested in Costa Mesa last month, 23 are accused of felonies and 23 of misdemeanors, according to city statistics.

One man had an arrest record in five states and had been deported three previous times, Kice said.

Another had drug convictions and been deported five times before, she added.

Most of the 13 misdemeanor cases involving the state's vehicle code involved charges of driving under the influence, said Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Marty Carver.

"It doesn't surprise me that we are finding substantial numbers" of undocumented immigrants, Mayor Mansoor said. "It shows this was needed, and it shows it's effective. I believe it will help reduce crime in our city.

"The bottom line is people need to come here legally."

Of the 403 inmates booked in the jail between Dec. 4 and Dec. 31, 138 were determined to be foreign-born and were interviewed by the federal agent.

By comparison, Orange County Jail officials ran immigration checks on about 200 foreign-born inmates a month in 2005, the latest available figures. Statistics showing how many of those were deported weren't available, officials said.

Federal agents have only intermittently visited other city jails. In Anaheim, for example, the last time a federal agent did immigration checks was about two months ago, said Anaheim Police Sgt. Rick Martinez.

Inmates recommended for deportation have a hearing before a federal judge. If deportation is ordered, the inmates are held without bond while the original case goes though the justice system.

Any jail time is served before deportation.

Costa Mesa resident Judi Berry said the federal intervention was a relief because there were many repeat offenders.

"If we get one criminal like that off the streets every month, it would be wonderful," Berry said.

Ivan Calderon, a restaurateur and Latino activist, said the federal enforcement would drive immigrants underground and make them reluctant to contact the police.

"As people get arrested for minor violations and are deported, the word is going to get out, and people will be afraid," Calderon said.

Amin David, who heads a Latino advocacy group, Los Amigos of Orange County, is closely monitoring the arrests.

"What concerns me is that for a misdemeanor, they are taken to jail and will be forever unable to get documentation in this country," David said. "The community will realize this and not cooperate with police. The thugs know that and can go in and ravage the Latino community. They know they will not call the police."

Carver said the misdemeanor suspects referred for deportation constituted a "tiny percentage" of those booked into the jail, suggesting that a chilling effect would not occur.