Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego will become the first counties in California to begin checking the immigration status of all inmates booked into jail as part of a national effort to identify and deport more illegal immigrants with criminal records.
Law enforcement officials in the three counties will begin running inmates' fingerprints through federal databases this month to see if they have had any contact with the immigration system. Immigration officials will place holds on those believed to be in the country illegally. Once the inmates have finished serving their sentences, they will be transferred to immigration custody for possible deportation.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier launched the program, dubbed Secure Communities, in 48 counties in seven states and plans to expand it to all jails and prisons by the end of 2012. Congress has allocated $350 million for the program in fiscal years 2008 and 2009. President Obama asked Congress last week for a 30% increase in federal funds for next year.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently told Congress that the program "gives our state and local partners a powerful tool to identify criminal aliens in their custody."
David Venturella, executive director of Secure Communities for ICE, said the program is much more accurate than the previous system because all inmates -- not just those who say they are foreign-born -- are screened for immigration status. Convicted felons who have multiple aliases or have lied about being born in the U.S. are being identified under the new program, he said.
"We are finding those individuals, and they are not getting out," he said.
Law enforcement officers already had access to the immigration databases, but the computer screening will now automatically take place as part of the booking process.
Not everybody identified, convicted and transferred to federal custody will be deported right away, however. Venturella said the federal government will prioritize illegal immigrants who pose a threat to public safety, including those convicted of murder, rape, robbery or kidnapping.
And despite the improvements, Venturella said the system could still miss illegal immigrants who have never had contact with the immigration system. He said that's where the actual screeners come in. "Human resources can be focused on the ones who we don't have any records on," he said.
For example, Secure Communities probably wouldn't have led to the identification of illegal immigrant Pedro Espinoza, suspected of killing high school football player Jamiel Shaw II after being released from Los Angeles County Jail. Espinoza had not had contact with the immigration system in the past, officials said.
Shaw's family has sued the Sheriff's Department for negligence and wrongful death. Espinoza said during booking that he was born in the U.S., according to sheriff's officials.
The department began working with federal immigration agents in 2006 to screen inmates, but officials said the new program will help keep people from slipping through the cracks. "There is another layer of screening going on," said Sheriff's Lt. Kevin Kuykendall. "It's another tool to increase our effectiveness and make sure we get to everyone we need to get to."
More than 40 police agencies throughout Los Angeles County will participate in the new program, enabling law enforcement to screen every inmate booked at any local facility, immigration officials said.
In some cases, immigration agents may arrest an inmate who has been let out of jail -- on bail or after an acquittal, for example -- if the person is an illegal immigrant and has a prior criminal record.
County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who lobbied the federal government to bring the program to L.A., said its implementation will make the county safer and save money.
"County taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars housing and supporting criminal aliens who have broken the law to be here," he said. "They need to be deported."
But Ahilan Arulanantham, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said there need to be safeguards so inmates aren't incorrectly put on immigration holds based on a database that could contain errors.
"There has got to be some kind of human training and understanding and procedures in place so that there is someone who knows enough immigration law to interpret this data correctly," he said.