All inmates booked into jails throughout Los Angeles County will have their immigration status checked beginning today, but federal officials said they don't have the resources to deport all illegal immigrants with criminal records who are identified.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement will prioritize illegal immigrants with past convictions for violent crimes, including murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery. Though immigration officials plan to assess every case individually, they said some with less serious criminal records may be released back into the community.
"The reality of the situation is that we don't presently have the resources to respond to every single person," agency head John T. Morton said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "We are focusing on the worst of the worst."
Morton said the issue is "something we are going to need to work out with the Congress and the administration."
Secure Communities, the identification program, began last fall and is now in nearly 80 counties, including Ventura and San Diego. The government plans to have it up and running in all jails and prisons by the end of 2013. The program is part of the administration's focus on targeting illegal immigrants with criminal records.
Nationwide, about 12% of all inmates checked were here illegally and had prior criminal convictions. Of those, about 6,700 had been convicted of violent crimes. Roughly 60,000 others had other criminal convictions.
In Los Angeles County, more than 40 law enforcement agencies will run inmates' fingerprints through federal databases during the booking process to see if the inmates have had any contact with the immigration system. Immigration officials will then determine the inmates' immigration status, check their criminal records and place holds on those with a prior conviction of a serious crime. Once those inmates finish serving their time, they will be transferred to immigration custody for possible deportation.
If the inmate has been previously deported or has an outstanding order, they also will be subject to removal, said Trey Lund, field office director of detention and removal operations for ICE in Los Angeles.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Secure Communities is a good program but has limitations because of lack of detention beds.
"By not increasing detention space, the administration seems to be suggesting that it is not all that serious about it," he said. "When illegal immigrants are identified, it is preferable that we don't just let them go."
Immigration officials said the new screening process avoids concerns about racial profiling because every inmates' fingerprints will be checked.
"In a nutshell, it takes the guesswork out of it," Lund said.
But Joan Friedland of the National Immigration Law Center said she is concerned about the racial profiling that occurs before booking. Friedland also said she doesn't trust that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will deport only those with serious criminal convictions. Anecdotal evidence from counties using Secure Communities shows that people are being deported based on minor crimes, she said.