A spot check by federal agents has identified 59 street gang members in Southern California jails who are illegal immigrants subject to deportation, sparking a debate about the role of border enforcement in the region's battle against violent gangs.
The initial identification of deportable gang members came during a first-of-its-kind screening of a portion of jail inmates last month.
The review will continue, and officials expect during the first year to identify 700 to 800 gang members who are illegal immigrants, according to Jim Hayes, director of the Los Angeles field office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The results so far have some officials convinced that border enforcement needs to be a big part of combating the gang problem.
"We play a vital role with respect to foreign nationals who are in gangs here," Hayes said.
The focus on immigration status comes as the city of Los Angeles is calling on federal agencies to help it crack down in response to last year's 15.7% increase in gang crime.
Some say it also shows the need for agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, to loosen policies that generally prohibit officers from asking about the immigration status of anyone they question.
"It helps to show that cooperation between the LAPD and immigration officials should help reduce gang violence" if a suspect is ultimately deported, said Paul Orfanedes, litigation director for Judicial Watch.
The Washington, D.C.-based group has sued the LAPD to overturn Special Order 40, the rule that prohibits officers from asking about immigration status, arguing that the department is required to enforce all laws.
The policy has been loosened slightly, allowing gang officers to ask about the immigration status of suspects only when they recognize them as having been previously deported.
As recently as last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rejected the argument that eliminating Special Order 40 would help in the battle against gangs.
"Every police chief since Daryl Gates has supported Special Order 40," Villaraigosa told reporters. "They have because they understand that in a city as under-policed as Los Angeles is, we need to focus on crime. We need to ensure that the victims of crime, the witnesses of crime come forward. We don't want them to believe we're going to report them to ICE when they do come forward and report a crime."
Officials with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund express similar concern. They say they do not oppose the deportation of convicted criminals by federal authorities but believe rescinding Special Order 40 would be a setback because without it some witnesses to gang crimes who are not legally in the country might be unwilling to cooperate with police.
"We believe on balance it promotes public safety rather than precludes public safety," said Cynthia Valenzuela, national litigation director for MALDEF.
The mayor said it is the federal government's job to enforce immigration laws.
Hayes, the immigration official, agreed that his agency can do more, which is why it has begun determining whether jail inmates red-flagged for immigration violations are gang members.
The Times reported last month that an increase in screeners allowed authorities to question nearly 10,000 of the 170,000 inmates who went through county jails last year about their immigration status.
The number red-flagged -- those who face possible deportation once they serve their sentences -- went from 3,050 in 2005 to 5,829 last year.
The immigration agency began last month, for the first time, to identify deportable gang members.
For the month of February, 290 inmates at Los Angeles County jails were determined to be in this country illegally, and 24 of those, about 8%, were determined to be associated with street gangs.
A similar survey was done for the 816 inmates red-flagged in jails in the seven Southern California counties served by Hayes' office. That survey, which includes Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, identified 59 gang members, or 7% of those facing deportation.
On any given day, Los Angeles County jails have about 19,500 inmates, including about 4,500 gang members, said Steve Whitmore, a Sheriff's Department spokesman. He said up to 25% of the inmates in the jail are believed to be foreign nationals.
Hayes said those flagged for deportation and identified as gang members may get additional attention to determine whether they had been deported before and returned to the U.S., which could result in federal prosecution and prison time before they are sent out of the country.
Hayes cited as an example the case of Joaquin Gutierrez Payan, a member of the Sureno street gang in Los Angeles.
Payan had been sent to prison for assault with a deadly weapon in a Los Angeles case and was also wanted in Mexico for murder. A native of Juarez, Payan just completed a prison term for the crime here and was turned over to Mexican authorities this week to face allegations that he raped and murdered a cocktail waitress in Juarez more than two years ago.
A check of his immigration status after his conviction for the L.A. crime found that Payan was in the United States after previously being deported to Mexico.