Scott Hamelin, left, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Escondido — It was just an inconvenient traffic stop on the way through town for Javier Barrera Saldivar. Police had spotted the broken tail light on his car, and he figured he'd get a fix-it ticket and be on his way. But federal immigration officers soon rolled up, wielding handcuffs and Barrera's mug shot on a cellphone.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been stationed at the Police Department of this San Diego County city since May, responding to everything from traffic stops to gang sweeps in an aggressive effort to clear the community of illegal immigrants with deportation orders or criminal records.
Barrera, 24, the records showed, was a previously deported illegal immigrant with convictions for drunk driving and possessing a false driver's license. Instead of receiving a traffic citation and being released — which is what typically would have occurred — he was arrested and placed in deportation proceedings.
Barrera is among 303 illegal immigrants arrested and placed in deportation proceedings so far in a program dubbed Joint Effort, which allows federal agents to reach deeper into the streets for immigration scofflaws than in almost any other community in the country. Most arrests are of illegal immigrants with deportation orders and drunk-driving records, but gang members and sex and drug offenders have also been snared and deported.
Since the pair of ICE agents moved into police headquarters, the pilot program, which was recently made permanent, has been hailed by many as a welcome expansion of federal authority. ICE officials say they would consider expanding the program if other communities expressed interest.
But opponents say the presence of immigration officers on the streets of Escondido has put Latinos, who constitute slightly more than 50% of the population of 140,000, on edge.
One local immigrant rights group last year issued a travel advisory for people visiting the city, saying the program invites racial profiling. Critics contend that the measure is the latest effort by City Hall, which once tried to punish landlords for renting to illegal immigrants, to create a hostile environment for Latinos.
"The city of Escondido is the Arizona of San Diego County," said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego and Imperial counties. "The program is an extreme example of local police working with federal immigration agents, and neglects the tremendous harm to public safety from scaring to death our immigrant communities."
But backers call the program a balanced approach toward changing Escondido's status as a revolving-door destination for previously deported illegal immigrants. Officers arrest only previous deportees or people with criminal records; illegal immigrants encountered on city streets who have clean records are not arrested, said Police Chief Jim Maher.
"We're here to protect everybody regardless of what their [immigration] status is, but if they're criminals then we make every effort to get them out of Escondido," Maher said.
Federal immigration officers working shoulder to shoulder with local police would be a welcome sight in many regions of the country where there is growing support for tougher enforcement measures against illegal immigration.
"I think there are many police departments across the country that would love to have a similar arrangement, if ICE were able to staff it," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supporters stricter immigration laws.
With the Obama administration under pressure to burnish its immigration enforcement credentials, Joint Effort represents one of the boldest measures yet to boost deportation numbers. Most deportations of criminal aliens — 58,000 nationwide in the last two years — result from ICE agents and local police running immigration checks of inmates at jails. The Escondido program goes a step further, targeting immigrants who come in contact with police but would not typically be booked into jail.
ICE officials in San Diego said officers regularly encounter illegal immigrants in Escondido with no criminal records. They are not detained because the program focuses only on people who are deemed threats.
"Escondido is not a huge community, and police were seeing these guys over and over again," said Robin F. Baker, ICE's director of enforcement and removal operations in San Diego. "These are people that have victimized the community before."
A young man recognized by police as a previously deported immigrant, someone hanging out with known gang members or someone pulled over who can't provide identification can now be subject to an immediate immigration check.