Acknowledging that they have lost track of many alien criminals, federal immigration officials Wednesday announced that they will step up deportation proceedings against convicts in California and three other Western states.
Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, told a Los Angeles news conference that a special eight-member task force will place "holds" on 16% of the 50,000 inmates in California's state prisons who are aliens. At the same time, the detail will check with local authorities for aliens who are currently serving time in county and municipal jails.
Once an inmate on "hold" completes his jail time, he is turned over to immigration authorities for deportation proceedings.
Los Angeles County officials estimated that 14% to 26% of the 20,000 inmates in the already overcrowded jail system are illegal immigrants, but said the figures are imprecise because the INS had stopped monitoring the immigration status of inmates.
Drug Involvement Cited
Ezell said the task force is INS's response to complaints from local authorities that illegal aliens are increasingly becoming involved in criminal activity, including drug trafficking.
"We're finding throughout our region that illegal aliens are involved in a minimum of 50% of the drug activity, and up to 80% in some of the counties we are responsible for," he said.
Joe Thomas, deputy director of INS' Los Angeles district who joined Ezell at the news conference, said immigration "holds" have already been placed on about 6,800 prison inmates and that that figure should increase by October.
Ezell and other INS officials were unable to say how many deportations might result from the stepped-up effort.
"This hasn't been a high priority for us in the past," Ezell said. "But we're making it a high priority now."
Under federal law, the INS can deport aliens living in this country without proper authorization. In addition, it can deport legal-resident aliens if they are convicted of "serious crimes," such as murder, robbery, drug trafficking or sex offenses.
The regional commissioner, who has drawn the ire of immigrants rights' groups with his repeated statements that the U.S. border with Mexico is "out of control," said that many criminal aliens, having completed their sentences, have been allowed back on the streets without detection by the INS. But he could not provide a precise figure on the number of aliens who have no "holds" placed on them.
"We just haven't had the manpower," he said.
Drop in Manpower
Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, in a telephone interview, said he was shocked to learn in 1983 that the number of INS investigators in the Los Angeles office had dropped from 111 to 41 and that INS officials that year also discontinued the practice of checking computer information on all suspects processed into the county's jail system.
Told of Block's remarks, an INS spokesman said a major policy change in 1983 shifted local INS manpower into fraud units.
INS officials also stopped placing holds on alien inmates at the County Jail after it was learned that Los Angeles County was charging $30 a day for each alien placed on hold after his jail time was over.
"The federal government didn't have the money to pay for it," INS spokesman Doug Calvert said. Los Angeles is the only county in the region to impose this charge, he added.
The fee is now a matter of negotiation between the INS and county authorities, Calvert added.
Focus of Inquiries
Thomas said the task force will concentrate on making sure immigration "holds" are put on aliens already in prison and on making a preliminary determination of an arrestee's resident status at the time that individual is booked.
In some instances, INS officials said, agents might accompany local law enforcement agencies in operations to help identify the citizenship status of suspects rounded up by authorities.
But some civil libertarians see that practice as an improper use of local police power.
"Local police should not be enforcing federal immigration laws," said Charles Wheeler, director of the National Center of Immigrants' Rights in Los Angeles.
Concern Over Delays
"It could also lead to delays for people (who are apprehended but subsequently released for lack of evidence) from being released from custody, with the immigration people asking questions about your status in this country," Wheeler said.
Ezell and others said the stepped-up enforcement should eventually help relieve overcrowding in county jails.
The program, initially concentrating in the Los Angeles area, will also be implemented in Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam, Ezell said.