Sheriff's plan takes aim at hot voter issue
Giving authority to act on immigration to some deputies may split rivals in next year's race.
By MARTIN WISCKOL
The Orange County Register
Sheriff Mike Carona's plan for some deputies to have immigration-enforcement authority is expected to attract national attention, as part of it is unprecedented for local law enforcement.
But the plan is already kicking up plenty of dust locally, including mixed reviews from the three law-enforcement veterans challenging Carona's re-election bid next year.
"I think Carona's (plan) is nothing more than an election-year ploy," said sheriff's Lt. Bill Hunt, one of the challengers. "He sees this is a hot-button issue with his Republican base. ... But I don't think it addresses the issue."
Illegal immigration was a primary focus of this month's special congressional election and could play a key role in next year's sheriff's race. Carona's plan is designed to steer clear of illegal immigrants who are otherwise law abiding, but it has been attacked nonetheless by some who say it will alienate Latinos.
"It will create a chill factor," said Amin David, who chairs a local group of business people called Los Amigos and who sits on the sheriff's Citizen Advisory Committee. "It will lose the feeling of cooperation we have between the community and the Sheriff's Department. It will hamper good law enforcement."
Carona says his two-pronged plan will increase efficiency in the jails and help get criminals off the streets. One part of his proposal would give jail deputies the authority to access immigration records of inmates, determine immigration status and turn over illegal immigrants to the federal government for deportation once their sentence has been served. This practice is already in place in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
Currently, immigration officials visit the jail and do checks on anyone for whom deputies have not been able to determine legal residency.
More controversial is a proposal to give immigration authority to many felony investigators. This plan, which Carona spokesman Jon Fleischman said would be a nationwide first for local law enforcement, would allow detectives to see if a suspect has been previously deported.
If so, investigators would then be able to book the suspect for a felony immigration violation even with inadequate evidence to arrest that person for the primary felony being investigation.
"The goal of the sheriff is not to become la migra(federal immigration)," Fleischman said. "It's to provide another tool for going after criminals."
He added that the plan has been in development for nearly two years. David said that the sheriff's citizen group was told of it about a year ago.
Sheriff candidate Ralph Martin, a Coto de Caza resident and a commander with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, endorsed both aspects of Carona's plan. He dismissed concerns that the authority given investigators would be abused and that otherwise-innocent immigrants would be rounded up.
"Most investigators have such a high caseload that they're not concerned with just deporting people," he said.
Candidate Bob Alcaraz, a Newport Beach resident and retired Los Angeles sheriff's sergeant, also supported giving investigators the increased authority - but warned that a clear department policy and close supervision would be necessary to avoid abuses.
However, he said it was unnecessary to give immigration enforcement authority to jail deputies.
"All that is now done by (immigration) officers," he said. "If that changes, the (sheriff) has to find manpower, time, equipment and space to keep these people."
Hunt, meanwhile, is in the peculiar position of having the support of Mario Rodriguez - a former state GOP vice chairman who opposes Carona's plan - and Allan Mansoor - the mayor of Costa Mesa leading the charge to establish a similar plan for his city's police. Hunt said he has not come up with an alternative to Carona's plan but intends to work with Rodriguez and Mansoor to develop something acceptable to both.
The issue is a hot one for many voters. Manuel Ramirez, co-founder of the Hispanic 100 business political action committee, said that numerous Latino leaders have called him on the subject.
"(They) indicated that while they supported Mike Carona in the past, they are seriously starting to consider moving from his camp," Ramirez said.
On the other side, some would like to see sheriff deputies go even further and started picking up people whose sole crime is being in the country illegally.
"I'm very much in favor of (Carona's plan)," said Fullerton's Pat Shuff, an anti-illegal-immigration activist who would like even broader powers given to deputies. "I would be more inclined to support (Carona) because of this. I'm just concerned that it will get watered down."
When they call Carona to complain, all he needs to do is ask them which criminals they want him to ignore, and if they want him to go after them when it is their store that gets robbed or home that gets burgled.
Maybe even put an ad in the Register listing which businessmen don't want the laws enforced.
Having local agencies enforce the immigration laws is not new or groundbreaking. It was very common for them to do so until somewhere around 20 years ago.