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Do the crime, go home

The county is right to send the illegal immigrants in its jails to deportation hearings after their sentences.

February 06, 2007

POLICE SHOULD NOT act like immigration agents, nor should landlords. But if there's one place it's wholly appropriate for local officials to crack down on illegal immigrants, it's in county jail.

Two years ago, Los Angeles County kicked off a controversial program to screen the immigration status of jail inmates more carefully. Eight custody assistants with the Sheriff's Department were trained to investigate inmates' backgrounds, and in October, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doubled the number of agents assigned to local jails. The result, as Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Stuart Pfeifer reported Monday, is that the number of inmates flagged for deportation nearly doubled last year, to 5,829.

L.A. jails are facing an overcrowding crisis, and illegal immigrants are part of the problem. Federal officials estimate that as many as 40,000 of the 170,000 inmates who pass through local jails each year are in this country illegally. Deporting them won't solve overcrowding in the short term because they have to serve their sentences before being turned over to the feds, but it will probably reduce crime and the jail population over the long term. Meanwhile, illegal residents will have more incentive to obey the law, without being unduly discouraged from cooperating with police.

Outside of jail, getting local governments, or citizens, involved in the immigration enforcement business is usually a bad idea. Perhaps the most disturbing local example of the trend was last fall's short-lived Escondido law forcing landlords to verify the immigration status of their tenants and to evict illegal immigrants. Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona has long sought to conduct immigration sweeps, and the Los Angeles Police Department has slightly loosened its policy forbidding inquiries into suspects' immigration status.

The danger with these measures is that if local police are seen as immigration enforcers, law-abiding immigrants will shy away from reporting crimes or stepping forward as witnesses. Beat cops rely on community relationships; turning them into border police makes their jobs harder.

Jailhouse immigration screening applies only to convicts, so there's little danger that it will erode trust for police by law-abiding immigrants. And though deputies serving guard duty later end up on the streets, they aren't the ones doing the screening; that's performed by custody assistants, who remain in the jails. The only legitimate fear about the jail program is that cops may bust street thugs they suspect to be illegal immigrants for the tiniest of infractions, knowing that a deportation hearing will follow the punishment. But this is a narrow concern that requires monitoring; it's not a deal-breaker.

There should be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but convicts have forfeited the right to be on it. Send them home.

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