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Immigration cops comb jails for criminal suspects in country illegally

Published April 28, 2008 12:52 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SPANISH FORK - The federal agent again asked Javier Escudero-Gonzalez where he came from.

Speaking Spanish in a Utah County jail interview room, Escudero-Gonzalez repeated his answer: the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent across the table flipped through the papers in front of him. Something didn't add up - the jail said Escudero-Gonzalez, booked a few days earlier on a drunken-driving and drug-possession warrant, was from Argentina.

The agent must determine where Escudero-Gonzalez is from, and then how he entered the United States. Whether he entered legally or not, however, Escudero-Gonzalez is more likely than ever to be deported, as jails in Utah and across the country have become clearinghouses for federal efforts to enforce immigration laws.

Along the Wasatch Front and in southwest Utah, immigration agents visit jails almost every weekday looking for immigrants who have been arrested by local police. And the patrols are gaining new emphasis.

In March, immigration agents announced an expansion of the jail program, including improved technology to record fingerprints in a database and alert authorities when a previously arrested immigrant is again booked into a jail.

The jail patrols also demonstrate a priority for immigration enforcement. Rather than seeking every undocumented immigrant or making frequent raids at workplaces, federal agents are concentrating on immigrants accused of breaking the law after they arrive in the United States.

"We start off with the most serious cases - the most violent criminals - and work our way down as we can," said Steve Branch, who directs immigrant detention and removal in Utah and three other states.

Once immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally or violating the terms of their entry have been arrested, federal agents can request a jail hold them without bail, even after their local case is finished. The government can then begin deportation proceedings.

Holly Cooper, a University of California-Davis law professor specializing in immigration issues, dismisses the jail program as a public relations campaign. Cooper points to studies showing immigrants commit fewer crimes than the native-born population.

"It appeases the constituents," Cooper said. "We want to make people feel like we're doing something to make them safer."

Drug possession might be the most common offense committed by jailed immigrants, Cooper said. Some also are being arrested because they do not have a driver license or vehicle or insurance registration - documents many immigrants can't acquire. And immigration agents can place a detainer - a request the jail not release that person - before the inmate is convicted.

Jail patrols also lend themselves to racial profiling, Cooper said.

But Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, calls the jail patrols a way to enforce immigration laws and remove some repeat offenders from communities.

"Ask any law enforcement agency whether they'd like to get rid of 10 percent of the criminals - or whatever [the percentage] is - in their area," Vaughan said.

Vaughan counters concerns about racial profiling by pointing out many jails including those in Utah ask everyone whether they are a U.S. citizen.

Branch said immigration agents usually wait until the local cases have been resolved before they begin deportation proceedings. He said it's possible for an immigrant to be acquitted of the local charge, then be deported for being in the country illegally.

"They put themselves in that predicament," Branch said.

The federal agent who interviewed Escudero-Gonzalez last month arrived at the Utah County jail to make one of his regular checks there. When he arrived, jail staffers gave him a list of prisoners who indicated they are foreign born.

The agent eventually determined Escudero-Gonzalez was telling the truth about being from Mexico and the papers discussing Argentina were incorrect. Escudero-Gonzalez, 26, then told the agent he had been deported in January then returned to the United States in February, crossing the border on foot with two friends near Lukeville, Ariz.

This month, Escudero-Gonzalez pleaded guilty to charges of driving under the influence and drug possession. He is serving 30 days in jail, after which he will be deported - if not for the convictions, then for having previously entered the country illegally.

The next inmate the agent visited, 32-year-old Bayar Jargal, of Mongolia, arrived in the country legally. Jargal said six years ago he had a student visa to attend the University of Nebraska but never enrolled. Orem police arrested him March 10 on suspicion of abusing his wife and children.

Jargal pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for child abuse and simple assault. Last week a judge gave him a sentence that did not include jail time, but because of the immigration detainer, Jargal remained in the Utah County jail on Friday pending a federal hearing to discuss whether he should be deported. The federal government will reimburse the jail for Jargal's stay.

Efforts to have local police enforce immigration laws have drawn criticism, notably from Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who has said he fears immigrants would then not be willing to call or cooperate with police. Burbank does not have the same concerns about federal agents going to jails.

"That doesn't put our officers in the position of going out and interacting with people on the basis of race or immigration status," he said.

Cooper and Vaughan agreed that, with some estimates saying the United States has 12 million unauthorized immigrants, the jails are not a large-scale solution to reducing that population.

"You're talking about a drop in the bucket," Cooper said.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com