In the latest turn in the two-year debate about local law enforcement role's in controlling illegal immigration, 14 Orange County sheriff's deputies graduated Thursday from a program that will allow them to check the immigration status of county inmates.
The checks should significantly increase the number of inmates deported after serving their sentences, Sheriff Michael S. Carona said.
Of the 66,000 county inmates in 2005, only 3,000 were checked for immigration status under a previous system in which one federal agent worked in the jail. Of the 3,000, 75% were illegal immigrants, Carona said.
In Los Angeles County, using trained deputies in the jail led to a 65% increase in the number of inmates referred for deportation, up to an average of 543 per month, federal officials said Thursday.
The Orange County department becomes the fourth California law enforcement agency and the 10th nationwide to enter into an agreement with the federal government to enforce immigration law.
A short ceremony at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana culminated two years of lobbying by Carona, who has repeatedly assured Latinos that the plan would not encourage racial profiling.
While Carona plugged his plan, Costa Mesa officials unsuccessfully sought to participate in a similar cross-training program, provoking alarm among Latinos and some business and city leaders. The federal government instead decided to station a federal agent in that city's jail.
At the county level, Carona originally sought to train more than 200 deputies. His plan called for them to work in the jail and on street patrol. The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, however, curbed the proposal, asking Carona to focus on people in custody.
Carona, however, said he saw the curtailment as only a temporary setback.
"I believe there is an opportunity in investigations," Carona said. The federal government "is interested in it. They just have limited resources for training."
Carona said deputies had worked recently with federal immigration officials in warrant sweeps, which he considered a "beta test" for future cooperation.
Immigration checks will start as early as today, Carona said, adding that 10 more deputies will receive the monthlong training in January.
Officials with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said they wanted the Sheriff's Department to keep statistics so it could be determined whether Latino suspects were being jailed more frequently for minor crimes in order for deputies to check their immigrant status.
Amin David, who heads Los Amigos of Orange County, a civic organization, said he was still concerned that the training was a waste of money that could generate prejudice toward Latino inmates.
"This is totally unnecessary. They could use officers who are already from" the federal government, David said.
"But we do want to wait to see what happens and if there is any misinterpretation of what the sheriff's role is in immigration enforcement."
The training of the 24 Orange County deputies cost the county $240,000 in overtime. The federal government spent about $36,000 for study materials.
Twenty-one law enforcement agencies are waiting for the training and 16 others are getting it, said William Reid, acting assistant director at the Office of Investigations of Immigration Customs and Enforcement in Los Angeles.
His agency's "mission is to protect our communities. Immigration enforcement is vital," Reid said. "This is a win-win from a public safety prospective."