Orange County supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to allow 24 sheriff's deputies to act as federal immigration officers so they can check inmates' legal status when they are booked into county jail.
The program will expand efforts already underway by U.S. authorities to identify illegal immigrants in the county's jail system, by checking the status of foreign citizens brought into custody. In 2005, those checks were performed on only 15% of the foreign nationals who were booked into jail, according to Sheriff Michael S. Carona. Roughly 75% were found to be here illegally.
The program is much smaller than the one originally sought by Carona, who hoped to have as many as 500 deputies from throughout the department participate. Carona said federal authorities did not have enough money to train the number of officers he wanted. Virginia Kice, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, said the reduced size was more in line with what had been approved in other jurisdictions. Both said the program could be expanded later.
Supervisors adopted the program 3 to 1, with the vote against cast by Lou Correa, the lone Democrat on the board, who is running for state Senate.
Reducing the county's cost of detaining illegal-immigrant criminals has been a chief justification for the program, but it is not clear how much money the county would save from the effort.
Inmates identified as undocumented immigrants would remain in the system until their criminal cases are resolved and turned over to federal authorities for deportation proceedings only afterward.
Supervisor Jim Silva said undocumented inmates cost the county $17 million per year.
Deputies participating will attend a four-week training program taught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The federal government will reimburse the county the $216,000 in overtime it will cost to cover the shifts of deputies participating in the program.
Historically, local law enforcement agencies were prohibited from enforcing federal laws. But beginning 10 years ago, the government began a program to cross-deputize specially trained local officers to check suspects' residency status. Immigration and Customs has trained 10 deputies to participate in similar programs in the jails of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Officers in Florida, Alabama and Georgia have similar enforcement powers, but their work is not limited to jails.
The replacement of U.S. immigration agents who already conduct the checks with cross-deputized local officers would appear to be largely symbolic. Still, the measure was vehemently opposed by religious, civil rights and Latino advocacy groups, who say those in the country illegally will be reluctant to report crimes out of fear they could be deported.
Hector Villagra, director of the Orange County office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he feared the measure would be used to initiate deportation proceedings before detainees can fight criminal charges.
"It will cement the perception that local police are federal immigration authorities," he said.
Correa questioned why the county would want to jeopardize tenuous relationships between local law enforcement and immigrant communities.
"By having deputies do it, are we breaking a trust? These neighborhoods have had trouble trusting police," he said.
Carona assured board members that any deportation would occur only after legal cases were adjudicated and that the program was not intended to target illegal immigrants who had not committed crimes.