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Costa Mesa's policy results in 360 deportations

Focus on immigration status of inmates began a year ago. Other area communities are following the city's lead.

December 27, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

In the year since Costa Mesa became the first Southern California city to have a federal immigration officer at its jail full time, 360 people who were in the country illegally have been deported.

The statistics cap a year in which illegal immigration has been a focus of the City Council.

"I'm glad to see the federal government is helping us uphold the law. I'm sure victims of crime are pleased that members of the criminal element are being removed from the community," Councilman Eric Bever said.

In late 2005, Mayor Allan Mansoor gained national attention when he sought to have local police enforce immigration laws in the city of 110,000 people.

Instead, he accepted help in December 2006 from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is now checking the immigration status of inmates. Following Costa Mesa's lead, Anaheim, Fullerton and Los Angeles County jails also have federal agents, said Jim Hayes, director of ICE's Southern California field office.

Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have entered into agreements with the federal agency to train sheriff's deputies to enforce immigration law.

Mansoor did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

ICE statistics show that 520 inmates in the Costa Mesa jail were referred to the agency and that 360 of those were deported. One hundred fourteen are "going through proceedings that will lead to their removal," Hayes said. The other 46 will go before a judge after they complete their jail sentences.

Hayes said the problem is that some of these people will sneak back into the United States. Already, 12 have been rearrested, he added.

Of the Costa Mesa suspects referred to ICE, 39% were charged with felonies, he said. Among those, 51 were arrested on drug charges; 28 on suspicion of assault and battery, which includes domestic violence; 19 on felony warrants; 17 on suspicion of burglary; and 10 on suspicion of theft, Police Sgt. Mark Manley said.

Police arrested about 34% of the 520 immigrants on charges of misdemeanors or infractions. Of those, 44 were suspected of driving under the influence, 32 of being drunk in public and 29 of driving without a valid license.

Individuals cited with a ticket for a minor offense may be taken to the jail when they are not carrying identification. In the jail, their immigration status is checked. Previously, those checks were spotty or occurred only after an inmate was taken to the Orange County Jail.

The illegal immigrants make up about 10% of all of those brought to the Costa Mesa jail.

Juan Ortega-Torres, 32, was brought to the Costa Mesa jail in June after he was arrested on suspicion of using a fraudulent driver's license, Hayes said. He was referred to ICE and charged with illegally entering the country after being deported. Ortega pleaded guilty in September and remains in federal custody pending his sentencing early next year. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

If not for the ICE officer in Costa Mesa, Ortega-Torres' immigration status would not have been checked, Hayes said.

With Costa Mesa's new policy, some immigrants, including those who are in the United States legally, say they fear city police and know someone who has moved out of the city because of it.

"When my lease was up, I figured it would be better to leave the city, because I didn't want to risk what could happen in Costa Mesa," said Linda Covarrubias, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who recently moved to Huntington Beach.

Legal immigrants share her worries: "My grandparents were born in this country, but somehow, I feel like they are after me as well," said Zeke Fernandez, a 31-year-old plumber.

Eduardo Ramirez, manager of a Costa Mesa store that caters to immigrants, said many of his customers are nervous. He asked that the name of the store not be published.

"They think that there's a greater chance that they will be picked up by police if they are driving a car, and that's true for those who are legal and illegal," Ramirez said.

Customers who spend more than $25 are offered transportation to and from Ramirez's store. Since the ICE agent was placed at Costa Mesa's jail, 25% more customers are asking for rides, as many as 20 people a day, he said.

Manley said the police are not looking for illegal immigrants.

"We never discussed as a patrol mission targeting people we thought might be illegal immigrants," he said.

Bever defended the City Council that promoted more immigration checks in the local jail. When the city does its part to curb illegal immigration, "I'm doing my job on the behalf of voters. I can't take care of every city, just this one," Bever said.

Since 2006, the council has focused on illegal immigration. It closed the Costa Mesa Job Center, which helped immigrants find work but cost the city $100,000 annually, and disbanded the 18-year-old Human Relations Committee, designed to address acts of discrimination, because it cost $3,700 annually and, according to council members, was too liberal.

Manley said it is too soon to tell whether the city's immigration policy has helped reduce crime.

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jennifer.delson@latimes.com

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