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Agents' interviews lead to hundreds of transfers

By Onell R. Soto

December 31, 2006

Hundreds of San Diego County jail inmates are being targeted for deportation every month now that federal authorities have posted immigration agents in local lockups.

In January, when the program began, agents identified 59 illegal immigrants among local inmates. In November, that number ballooned to 845.

That same month, 579 local inmates were transferred to federal officials for removal from the United States, according to federal statistics.

“We can just nab them right there and get them into deportation and remove them immediately,” said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Before January, agents in charge of screening inmates were focused on investigations rather than deportation, Mack said.

Those agents mostly tried to identify illegal immigrants by poring over booking logs, an imprecise method at best. Now, agents trained in deportation interview the inmates as well.

The goal is to better determine the immigration status of everyone accused of a crime.

San Diego, because of its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, has become among the most efficient at expelling illegal immigrants who break the law since the changes almost a year ago, Mack said.

Felons in the country illegally, including rapists, burglars and armed robbers, long have faced deportation after they have served their sentences. The increased screening means illegal immigrants arrested on charges that ordinarily don't carry jail time, such as public drunkenness or driving under the influence, also face deportation.

The agents work at the city-run Chula Vista jail and at county jails in Vista, Santee and downtown San Diego, where inmates are initially booked. They often interview inmates about the same time that jail officials fingerprint and photograph them.
Right now, agents are posted at the jails for part of the day, but authorities hope to increase staffing to provide round-the-clock coverage.

The interviews to determine whether people entered the country illegally are a lot like those conducted by border inspectors in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, Mack said.

At the downtown jail recently, Paul Garcia, a supervisory detention and deportation officer, questioned a man who had been arrested on rape and other charges.

The man, born in Acapulco, admitted he had been caught by immigration officials about eight years ago and was returned to Mexico. He said he had sneaked back in through the mountains near Tecate.

After talking to the man, Garcia said he'll be targeted for deportation.

Garcia also noted that, given the charges, the man faces several years in a California prison, and that deportation is the least of his worries.

Most inmates in county lockups are U.S. citizens, but immigration agents are trying to interview everyone, Garcia said.

Mack said that is an effort to avoid profiling.

“You can't always tell a person's immigration status by how they look or their last name,” she said.

Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Rose, who oversees inmate classification at the Central Jail in downtown San Diego, recalls prisoners who previously had been deported being released from jail because federal authorities failed to seek their detention.

“We had an idea that some people were slipping through,” Rose said.

Inmates at state and federal prisons already are screened for legal status, and deportation proceedings begin before their sentences are finished so they can be deported right away, Mack said.

In some cases, repeat offenders are referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office for possible prosecution on violations of immigration laws.

As part of the push initiated this year, the Department of Homeland Security is hoping to screen new inmates for legal status around the country, although it is done differently in other places.

The department has trained sheriff's deputies to conduct the screenings in other parts of the country, including in Los Angeles and Orange counties, but San Diego County sheriff's officials have turned down offers for similar training here, Mack said.

A sheriff's spokesman said earlier this year that the department lets federal authorities conduct the screening because it doesn't want to assume responsibilities that belong to the federal government.