Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Memorandum of Understanding in Action: How L.A. County Jails Screen for Criminal Aliens

I had a very enlightening conversation this morning with Sergent Lightle, who supervises the Classification program in the L.A. County jails. INS has had a Memorandum of Understanding allowing it to train and supervise L.A. County Sheriff employees to screen for undocumented aliens since 2005, although Sergent Lightle said that the INS has been in the jails since 1985.

In the period from January 31, 2006 to August 10, 2007, INS Custody Assistants had interviewed 13,598 inmates who were being released and issued holds on 7,391. These 7,391 could either agree to be removed to their country of origin or request a hearing to appeal this decision. Sergent Lightle did not know the total number of inmates released since January 31, 2006, but since at any given point there are 20,000 inmates, the number actually interviewed would seem to be a small fraction of the total number released.

The question raised by Pedro Guzman's case, a U.S. citizen by birth who was mistakenly deported, is how inmates are selected for these interviews. According to Sargent Lightle, there are three avenues that would lead to an interview. First, the inmate might have self-declared as an alien. An interview would examine whether he or she had legal documentation for residence in the United States. Second, an inmate's fingerprints might produce a match with the those of a known alien based on the FBI's Law Enforcement Fingerprint Database. Or third, and what must have happened with Pedro Guzman (who did not volunteer he was foreign-born before his interview), the Custody Assistant based on a perusal of the inmate's folder, can decide to interview the inmate.

"What in the folder might trigger an officer's interest?" I asked. Sargent Lightle said "whatever criteria they [the custody assistants] select." I wondered if there was a manual that might tell them what to look for. Sargent Lightle said she did not know of such a manual and said that the criteria would come from their training in immigration law by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE)(more on them later). Ethnic profiling is clearly one of the factors Figueras was considering when she decided to interview Guzman, but it couldn't be the only one. Most Latinos born in the United Stated are not selected by custody assistants for an interview.

Once identified for an interview, Sargent Lightle said, the Custody Assistant might request the inmate be held by INS if they "don't speak a word of English and can't answer questions that someone born in the United States could answer in Spanish." Sargent Lightle emphasized that for those who seem to be from Mexico, the whole interview would be done in Spanish." Of course there are many other reasons that someone might not be able to answer questions that most people born in the United States can answer, including mental disabilities. If the INS questions cannot distinguish between people who are mentally disabled (or simply poor civics students) and people who are non-citizens, and if these interviews are the basis for deportation, then this means that the INS may be guilty of kidnapping.

Sargent Lightle did clear up one question that I've been wondering about. As we all know from Paris Hilton's adventure, virtually no one receiving a sentence for time in the L.A. County jails serves the entire sentence. Instead the Sheriff has a number of criteria for early release. Was one of these being identified as an illegal alien? (And therefore, might inmates strategically misstate their nationality in order to be released early and then return to the United States, as has happened in at least one case?) It turns out the answer to this question for the L.A. County jails is no, meaning that Pedro Guzman had no incentive to lie about his country of origin.

One final question that Sargent Lightle was not able to answer: why was the order to hold Pedro Guzman sent to an inn in Colorado instead of the L.A. County Jails, where he was being held? She said that she was not allowed to comment on the Guzman case because of pending litigation, and that any orders for a hold would be the responsibility of the INS.

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