Costa Mesa's Immigration Deputies, Part 1

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A suburb of Orange County in Southern California has become the center of a heated debated over whether local police should enforce federal immigration laws. The city of Costa Mesa is poised to become the first in the nation to deputize some members of it police force as immigration officers. In the first of a two-part series, Debra Baer of member station KPCC reports that some officials are skeptical about the plan.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

But first, the Senate today is taking up immigration reform. There are a lot of controversial ideas being debated. One of them is whether local police officers should enforce federal immigration law. Here in California that idea is being tested in Orange County and the city of Costa Mesa.

Debra Baer of member station KKPC has the first of a two part series.

Ms. DEBRA BAER reporting:

Orange County Sheriff Mike Corona wants his deputies to have the authority to check the immigration status of suspects in felony cases and the power to detain or arrest them on immigration violations. He says the focus is on dangerous, hardened criminals.

Sheriff MIKE CORONA (Orange County Sheriff's Department): Career criminals, those who have been in this country, committed crimes and then have been deported and are back in this country illegally, get them off the streets before the commit another crime.

BAER: Using state and local peace officers as immigration enforcers is allowed under a little-used federal law intended to expand the forces of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. When he came up with the plan more than a year-and-a-half ago, Sheriff Corona knew it would be volatile, so he decided to go slow and develop it with input from the community. And he scaled back the program. He's applying to ICE to train and cross-deputize not patrol deputies but only county jail deputies and those who investigate serious crimes. But his go slow approach proved frustrating to some.

Mayor ALAN MANSEUR(ph) (Deputy): I'm like, how long are we going to talk about it?

BAER: That's Alan Manseur, one of Corona's sheriff's deputies. As the Sheriff was vetting his plan in public, Manseur became the mayor of the suburban Orange County city of Costa Mesa. He says he shares the frustration of those who think the federal government is failing to enforce immigration laws, and he wanted action.

Mayor MANSEUR: This has been at the county level for a couple of years now, and a lot of these groups have been opposing it. So my thought was, hey, why are we talking about it? Let's do it. Let's go forward with it.

BAER: He moved fast. On its first hearing in early December, the Costa Mesa City Council voted 3-2 to become the first city to have its cops enforce immigration law. Manseur wanted the entire department deputized by ICE, but the council opted to follow the Sheriff's more limited plan. Since then, Costa Mesa's City Hall has become ground zero for the debate over illegal immigration, drawing dozens of protestors and supporters, mostly from out of town.

Unidentified Man #1: There's more fear among the community, and a community that lives in fear cannot be integrated and cannot be safe.

BAER: On one side, immigrant rights activists fear the plan will lead to immigration sweeps. On the other side, anti-illegal immigration groups hope it will. ICE spokesperson Virginia Kai(ph) says they're both wrong.

Ms. VIRGINIA KAI (Spokesperson, ICE): We would not sanction that. We would not agree to that. This is another tool for these law enforcement organizations to use in the course of conducting their everyday duties.

BAER: Having local law enforcement do the work of federal immigration agents has long been resisted. It's been opposed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and even the Orange County Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, whose new president is Costa Mesa Police Chief John Hensley(ph).

Chief JOHN HENSLEY (Costa Mesa Police Department): I have concerns.

BAER: Unlike Sheriff Corona, Chief Hensley did not propose or advocate the plan he's now responsible for developing.

Chief HENSLEY: 15, 20 years we've been working very hard to make sure that the immigrant community understand that we're there to protect and serve. You know, my biggest fear is that a black and white comes around the corner and people take off running.

BAER: Another concern is resources. Many sheriffs and police departments are stretched too thin to take on what they see as a federal responsibility. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton.

Chief WILLIAM BRATTON (Los Angeles Police Department): Well, when you give me 100,000 more police, I might think about doing that sometime in the next century. But for right now, I've got better things to do.

BAER: But L.A.P.D. Chief Bratton says that he now supports what Orange County Sheriff Mike Corona wants to do because his plan narrowly focuses on deported, convicted felons who reenter the country. And so does L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca.

Sheriff LEE BACCA (Los Angeles Sheriff's Department): We cannot tolerate criminals who have been deported coming back into the United States.

BAER: The issue hits close to home for Baca. One of his deputies was murdered four years ago. The suspected killer of Deputy David March is a convicted felon who reentered the country after being deported. He was arrested in Mexico last week.

Sheriff Corona is hoping to get approval from ICE for his program in a matter of weeks.

For NPR News, I'm Deborah Baer.

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