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A hike in O.C. migrant detainees

The number has tripled since December, overwhelming the local consulate. Some seeking help there have been deported before.

March 31, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

The number of immigrants detained in Orange County has tripled since December, leaving the Mexican Consulate overwhelmed with requests to find relatives and help immigrants who within weeks reenter the United States illegally.

The jump in cases comes after Orange County jails and the Costa Mesa police have begun checking the immigration status of people who have been arrested.

Orange County Mexican Consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro said the number of cases he handled involving deported immigrants in February 2007 was twice the number from that month the year before.

Lines snake out the door of the consulate's Santa Ana office. Those immigrants whose cases need special handling make it to Ortiz Haro's office, where at any one time the hands-on consul talks to six or seven immigrant families at the same time.

Ortiz Haro checks local jails to see if immigrants are being held and determines whether they are able to hire attorneys or if the consulate can assist family members.

"What we deal with is what no one else deals with. We deal with the family members of all the people who are left behind when these people leave the country," he said.

"Usually, the one they catch is the one who was the breadwinner of the family. No one deals with that problem except us."

The consulate helps immigrants who left the country and reentered to get passports or seek lost back wages from employers. The office also provides Mexican identification cards, known as the matricula consular, for immigrants who need some form of identification.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement records show 187 immigrants detained in Orange County for possible deportation in December, 333 detained in January and 591 in February.

Ortiz Haro points to the cases of more than a dozen deported immigrants who quickly returned to Orange County from Mexico in recent weeks. In his bustling office, it doesn't take long to meet one.

Ortiz Haro believes the small sample is indicative of a larger trend of continuing illegal immigration: deportations and reentries. He described the cases of several immigrants deported in the last six weeks, although the details could not be verified by police or federal immigration officials:

* Christian, who was detained by federal immigration officials after driving without a license in Costa Mesa. His family appealed to the consulate because they could not find him. Six days later, he appeared at the consulate applying for a Mexican identification card.

* Jorge, who was detained by immigration officials after driving without a license in Costa Mesa and returned to Orange County in three days. It was the second time he had been deported in three months.

* Agustin, who was detained by immigration officials after being picked up by Costa Mesa police who erroneously thought he was a suspect in a recent crime. He was escorted to the border by officials. He returned 10 days later.

Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Marty Carver said officers might stop motorists for moving violations or missing car equipment, such as a taillight, he said. A motorist without a driver's license or identification is taken to jail, no matter his national origin or ethnicity, he said. "We're doing the same work we always have done. Nothing has changed," he said.

Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, a citizen border-patrol group, said the reentry of illegal immigrants showed that President Bush wasn't doing enough to control illegal immigration. He said the immigrants wouldn't be coming back if employers couldn't hire them.

Reentries are "a finger in the eye of the U.S. public and elbow into the ribs of our president to get out of the way," he said. "We have to get [tougher] with the employer of illegals."

Returning to the United States after being deported can be a felony if the immigrant has been deported before. Many immigrants who are forced to leave, however, are not deported, but agree to leave under an accord known as voluntary departure, which does not carry penalties or a court hearing.

"A lot of these individuals have ties in this country, and while they are concerned about the prospect of arrest, they will try to come back," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

More immigrants are being detained, she said, because jails in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties now have formal agreements with ICE that allow local sheriff's departments to check the immigration status of inmates. The federal agency also has launched aggressive operations to find illegal immigrants who are fugitives and has conducted more workplace raids.

The number of detentions in Los Angeles counties jumped from 214 in December to 545 in January but declined in February to 290. Detentions declined over the three-month period in San Bernardino-Riverside area from 112 in December to 106 in January to 94 in February.

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