SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - The inmate in the Orange County jail had been arrested before, but this time was different. After the first interview, he was led to a second, where he was told that if convicted he could be deported.
“I don’t think that’s fair for me,” said the detainee, a Mexican citizen who has lived legally in the United States for the past 17 years, with a wife and two children.
The deputy shrugged. “It’s not up to me,” he said.
The inmate, who cannot be identified because of a privacy protection rule of the Sheriff’s department, has good reason to worry.
U.S. authorities are screening record numbers of offenders looking for noncitizens -- both those in the United States legally and illegal immigrants -- for possible deportation, with sharp increases in recent months.
In May alone, agents identified just over 16,000 immigrants in the U.S. prison system, a jump of 65 percent from October, according to figures released by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The sharp rise highlights a new trend in law enforcement that blends the work of federal immigration agents and state and local authorities. Hailed as a way to fight crime by some, critics say the trend is politically motivated and blurs the line between immigration and criminal law.
‘PEOPLE WE DON‘T WANT’
A change in the law more than a decade ago allowed federal immigration agents to train members of local law enforcement to identify deportable immigrants.
Until recently, there were few takers.
But as the issue of what to do with 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. has become increasingly contentious and complex, more agencies are signing on.
Now 21 local law enforcement agencies have partnered with ICE in 12 states, more than twice the number of agencies at the end of 2006. A further 60 groups have applications pending.
California’s Orange County started the program in its jails last January and has so far identified more than 2,000 inmates who are potentially deportable -- either because they are undocumented immigrants or have committed crimes that make them eligible to lose their legal status.
“At the end of the day, we want a program that’s going to reduce crime,” said Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona.
After they have completed their sentences, flagged inmates are released to ICE for possible deportation.
About 70 percent of the inmates identified in O.C. jails were charged with felonies or aggravated felonies, crimes like drug possession and murder.
“It’s very difficult to argue against this program,” said Jim Hayes, field director for ICE in Los Angeles.
“We’re identifying people in the jails ... that are serious threats. These are people we don’t want in our communities.”
Though officials contend coordination between federal and local agents is just another tool to fight crime, opponents say it blurs the line between criminal and immigration law and is being driven by politics.
“Our concern is that deportation should not be a way to punish someone for committing a crime,” said Christian Ramirez, coordinator of the national immigrant rights group of the American Friends Service Committee.
Ramirez thinks politics are behind the increased coordination and points to the sudden surge of immigrants identified in the jails as proof.
“It creates a perception that all immigrants are criminals,” said Ramirez about ICE’s program in the jails.
That perception, Ramirez contends, is part of a plan to get a bill through Congress that is tough on enforcement.
“When policymakers play with the fear of the American public, it becomes a political issue.”
Last month, a bipartisan Senate bill seeking a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants was blocked in Congress by adversaries from both parties, essentially killing the chance of immigration reform until next year.
In the absence of federal reform, policymakers are under increasing pressure to show they’re taking some sort of action -- and greater enforcement is the path of least resistance.
The House of Representatives passed a measure to increase spending to improve federal and local coordination on matters of immigration and the Senate is expected to pass a similar plan soon.
“They choose something that looks like a concrete accomplishment,” said Joan Friedland, immigration policy director at the National Immigration Law Center, referring to members of Congress.
“But they don’t deal with the difficult issue of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, ICE’s Hayes said he was pleased with progress in the program to identify deportable immigrants in jails and expects coordination with local agencies to grow.
“I don’t think we’ve hit our stride.”