- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — U.S. jails and prisons have become strategic chokepoints in the search for illegal aliens facing deportation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say more jail checks are crucial to preventing serious crimes by illegal aliens. In December, for example, an illegal alien with a history of arrests for assaults and drug offenses shot two Long Beach, Calif., police officers before he was killed in a gun battle.

“This isn’t really an immigration issue. It’s a public-safety issue,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. “You can be sure there’ll be a finger-pointing drill at the end of the day if they do something evil.”

About half of the nearly 190,000 illegal aliens deported last year had criminal records, U.S. authorities said.

Sweeps of jails in the past seven months by ICE agents have netted more than 5,500 people nationwide, and a new system designed to track federal inmates has flagged about 6,000 people at 119 prisons, the agency said.

Past efforts to identify illegal aliens in jails were haphazard, with federal authorities checking inmate rosters at some lockups weekly at best. Some of the worst immigration violators were allowed back on the streets after doing their time.

Conservative groups are pleased with the new strategy but worry that the emphasis on jail checks is a political gimmick that could divert much-needed personnel and other resources from stopping illegal aliens at the border.

“This is a way to do it that everybody is for but has no real effect on the overall immigration flow,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank. “It shuts up the critics.”

Immigrant rights groups say illegal aliens might stop reporting child abuse or domestic violence to protect husbands or fathers from deportation. They also worry that people who have been stopped for minor offenses or wrongly arrested will be deported.

Starting in 2008, ICE plans to assign 220 more employees to jails through its Criminal Alien Program. The agency would not say how many employees are in the program.

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