The Orange County Grand Jury is urging the county's law-enforcement agencies to develop a consistent system for recording the citizenship status of all arrestees and defendants.
In a report issued Tuesday, the jury said that such information would help "in quantifying costs and services to illegal residents and non-residents within the system" and in obtaining possible federal reimbursement.
The proposal drew immediate criticism from some immigration and civil-liberties attorneys, who contended that it could foster a police-state mentality. But it won praise from an immigration-reform advocate.
The report grew out of an effort to assess how much it costs criminal-justice agencies to deal with illegal immigrants and non-citizens, one grand juror said. But the grand jury was stymied by a lack of consistent data from the 35 law enforcement agencies it surveyed, said Royal Lord, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee for the 1994-95 grand jury.
"The information was not available. There is no consistent method of determining. It's apples and oranges," Lord said. "Really, the report is done so that future grand juries can do reports with adequate data."
Initial reaction to the report was sharply divided.
Anaheim Police Chief Randall Gaston said he believes the report's recommendations are part of a growing trend.
"I think it is highly probable that cities that run their own detention centers will examine what procedures will be most effective in identifying people in custody," he said.
Orange County Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler said his department is not involved in any effort at documenting citizenship at this time, and believes it should stay that way.
"Our basic rule is to represent people accused of crimes, no matter who they are," he said.
Some worried that citizenship screening could open the door to police assuming the role of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service workers.
"I would be very concerned that this would be the green light for police to be stopping people and asking them, on a pretext of finding out their immigration status, for purposes of turning them over to the INS," said Charles Wheeler, director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. He called the proposal "grossly premature," saying there is currently no federal government reimbursement to states for law-enforcement costs related to immigrants.
John Palacio of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said he is concerned that such a policy would be used selectively to discriminate against Latinos and others.
"Are they going to ask John Smith to prove his citizenship?" Palacio asked.
"It's a quagmire," added Silvia Argueta, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who questioned how police would know what constitutes adequate proof of citizenship.
Some welcomed the report and its recommendations.
Barbara A. Coe, chairwoman of California Coalition for Immigration Reform, said adoption of such a policy would represent "incredible progress." She said sharing information between agencies, including the INS, would be key in fighting illegal immigration.
Illegal immigrants "have no problem with boundaries," said Coe, who was active in the campaign for Proposition 187.
She cited Anaheim's efforts to determine immigration status of its jail inmates as one policy that could serve as a model for other cities. Anaheim officials also hope to place an INS agent at their city jail. "If this could spread to other cities, we're talking providing protection to people throughout Orange County," she said.
In a separate development in Washington, an anti-immigration group issued a report contending that Santa Ana and Long Beach suffer high unemployment, elevated crime rates and greater welfare dependency because of their large numbers of immigrants.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform released comparisons between cities with high and low immigration rates to show the impact of immigration on what was termed the American family.
The report found that St. Paul, Minn., has a stronger family environment because of better high school graduation levels, lower population density and more employment opportunities. It criticized Santa Ana for a lack of "cultural adaptation" resulting from a large number of residents speaking Spanish in their homes.
The report drew angry responses from immigration advocates. "This is just another flagrant example of those who want to create fear that the American way of life is being threatened," said Palacio. "It feeds a lot of stereotypes that immigrants are not bettering themselves."
Times correspondent Alan Eyerly and the States News Service contributed to this story.