Thursday, May 26, 2011

ESCONDIDO: Police, ICE partnership credited with 477 arrests in its first year (North County Times)

ESCONDIDO: Police, ICE partnership credited with 477 arrests in its first year

By EDWARD SIFUENTES | Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 7:30 pm

After one year in operation, a joint effort by the Escondido Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has resulted in 477 illegal immigrant arrests, officials announced Wednesday.

As part of the partnership, three ICE officers work side by side with Escondido police officers to detect and arrest illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the city, officials said. The program, which has been criticized by immigrant and Latino rights advocates, began in May 2010.

Escondido police Chief Jim Maher said the program, called Operation Joint Effort, helps his department take criminals out of the community.

"The ultimate goal of this program is to rid this criminal element from our community and not have them return," Maher said Wednesday. "However, if they do return to this country they will think twice about returning to Escondido because we will find them and deport them as many times as it takes to get the message."

Critics of the program say that having police officers working directly with immigration agents makes it less likely that illegal immigrants will report crimes, fearing they could be deported and making the city less safe for everyone.

"What about the cost to the community of all the crimes that haven't been reported because they are afraid of being turned over to ICE?" Victor Torres asked.

Torres is a spokesman for the North County-based El Grupo, an umbrella organization of human rights groups. Torres said the majority of people arrested under the program were people who are not criminals or whose crimes were minor infractions.

Of the 477 people, 126 were arrested for drunken driving violations, 65 for drug-related charges, 44 for assault, 37 for theft, 11 for sex crimes and 16 for gang-related violations, according to the Police Department. The other 178 individuals were arrested on a variety of charges, such as false documents and traffic violations, Lt. Craig Carter said.

Officials said many of the individuals would not have been deported without the partnership between the Police Department and immigration authorities.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department participates in the federal Secure Communities program, which helps local law enforcement agencies detect illegal immigrants once they are booked into county jails. Suspects booked into local jails have their fingerprints checked against federal databases to verify their immigration status.

Immigration agents also interview people booked into county jails to determine if they are illegal immigrants.

However, many of the people arrested under Operation Joint Effort would not have been identified through the Secure Communities program, Carter said. That is because many of these people would never have made it to jail.

In other words, their offenses, such as running a stop sign, were not serious enough to land them in jail, Carter said. Some of those individuals have more serious criminal records, he added.

For example, police officers responding to a report of a disturbance two months ago came across Pedro Trejo Ramos. Working with ICE agents, police officers determined that Ramos was an illegal immigrant with an extensive criminal history and two prior deportations. He had two drug arrests, two domestic violence arrests and one arrest for welfare fraud, police said.

Police also credit the program with helping to capture a suspected robber and rapist last week. The suspect, Jugo Elmer Garcia, an 18-year-old illegal immigrant, was spotted by two ICE officers after he allegedly sexually assaulted and robbed a woman at an Escondido store on May 18.

Garcia had been ordered to leave the country in January and failed to comply with the order.

Bill Flores, a retired assistant sheriff who is also affiliated with El Grupo, said the program's benefits were not worth the fear it creates in the community. He said serious criminals who are illegal immigrants are identified by ICE or the Secure Communities program in jail.

"Like other cities in San Diego County, Escondido saw a small dip in property crimes and a small rise in violent crimes," Flores said. "The only difference is that those other cities did not engage in enforcing federal immigration laws."

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