One recent morning, an inmate was scheduled to be released with an ankle bracelet for a driving under the influence conviction. Sheriff's officials typed his name into an immigration database and came up with photos, fingerprints and a record showing that someone by that name had been born in Mexico and deported. After taking the inmate's fingerprints, however, the officials realized it wasn't the same person. But the inmate admitted he was also an illegal immigrant from Mexico who had been deported and had sneaked back into the U.S. An immigration hold was placed on him.
Another inmate, a gang member in jail on a robbery charge, told the custody assistant he had a green card. Despite that, she told him, his earlier drug convictions made him eligible for deportation to El Salvador. When she asked for his address there, he responded that he had no idea. He had come to the U.S., he said, when he was 6.
Next, a man in jail for traffic violations was called in for an interview because he had told law enforcement he was born in Mexico. But that morning, he claimed to have been born in Torrance.
"You're not lying to me?" the custody assistant asked before grilling him on the name of the hospital where he was born and the schools he attended as a child. She asked if he had proof of U.S. citizenship. The inmate told her he had a Social Security number, which she checked against a database and determined that his story checked out. For the custody assistant, that was enough.
"You're going to be bonded out," she said. "Next time don't state you're from a foreign country."
Down the hall in another converted cell, federal immigration agent Jose Luquin interviewed a Mexican immigrant with convictions for battery, grand theft and domestic violence. The immigrant had been deported twice and had paid a smuggler to help him reenter the U.S., where he was arrested for violating probation.
"Do I have to go back?" he asked, crying. "I have four kids. My wife is sick. I've been here all my life. . . . I feel American in my heart."
"You have a judge's order telling you you can't be in the United States," Luquin said before telling the inmate he would again be deported.
Similar scenes take place at jails around the nation every day, including those in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has 30 agreements with local law enforcement agencies around the U.S. to conduct screenings in jails. There are programs in about 10% of jails nationwide and the others have 24-hour access to immigration authorities.
Now, Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Julie Myers said the agency is unveiling a new program to "create a virtual ICE presence" in all jails nationwide by linking local law enforcement departments with Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation databases. The technology, she said, will enable some of the screening to be done electronically without requiring interviews by immigration or local law enforcement agents.