Feds to bolster war on gangs

The D.A. and L.A. city attorney want to deport illegal immigrants even before trial. Data on suspects will be shared.

By Patrick McGreevy and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
April 5, 2007

Suspected gang members who are in the country illegally and are arrested for even minor crimes could face quicker deportation under new policies unveiled Wednesday by the top two prosecutors in Los Angeles.

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said they are partnering more closely with federal immigration officials and attorneys to identify the gang members for deportation, adding that illegal immigrants appear to make up a significant portion of the gang population.

The partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement marks a departure for local law enforcement, which generally keeps federal immigration officials at arm's length and largely prohibits Los Angeles police officers from asking the immigration status of either crime victims or suspects.

Inquiring about immigration, authorities have long argued, would spread fear across immigrant communities and make it difficult for police to investigate crimes.

But Delgadillo and Cooley said they are now working with federal officials to deport some gang suspects before they are convicted of new crimes.

All suspected gang members charged with breaking gang injunctions as well as other offenses such as graffiti vandalism, and loitering are being checked for immigration violations, Delgadillo said.

Those whose criminal records show illegal status are turned over to federal authorities. New protocols are being developed to smooth that sharing of data. Delgadillo has also assigned three prosecutors to the U.S. attorney's office to help prosecute gang members for immigration violations.

"Undocumented immigrants are a large source of the members of gangs and have been part of the surge that has occurred in the San Fernando Valley," Delgadillo said. "If we know there are gang members, we should be in the position to discern every law they have broken, including whether they have come here illegally."

Cooley also proposed Wednesday assigning some of his prosecutors to help federal attorneys go after gang members who illegally reenter the country after being deported following a criminal conviction — a group that he said is not being aggressively prosecuted.

"We should not have to wait for them to do another crime," Cooley said in an interview. "We need to identify transnational gang members and deport them."

A census found recently that more than 20% of L.A. County Jail inmates — about 40,000 people — and more than 10% of Orange County Jail inmates were illegal immigrants.

Cooley and Delgadillo's stance won immediate support from federal immigration officials, who said the issue is central to L.A.'s new campaign to quell gang violence, which rose last year.

The immigration agency announced Wednesday that it has assigned nine new agents and a supervisor to the Valley to target violent gang members who are also illegal immigrants. Overall, the agency now has 70 agents in Southern California targeting such people, compared with nine a few years ago.

"We are dealing with threats to public safety," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge of the Southern California office. "Any information that helps us do our job more effectively and make the community safer is welcome."

However, immigrant rights advocates denounced the expanded cooperation between local prosecutors and federal immigration agents, predicting that it will make illegal immigrants — out of fear of deportation — less likely to cooperate with police.

"It erodes the public trust in law enforcement," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles. "The lines are blurring."

The debate over what role local law enforcement should play in immigration checks has roiled communities across Southern California.

In Orange County, the Sheriff's Department and Costa Mesa Police Department were the subject of national headlines and protests by immigrant rights groups last year after the agencies agreed to have some officers be trained by the federal agency to assist with immigration checks in the jails.

The checks began at the Orange County Jail system in January, and during the first five weeks officials identified 639 inmates who appeared to be here illegally.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton reiterated Wednesday that he opposes any change in the department's immigration policy, known as Special Order 40, which prohibits officers from asking anyone about their immigration status.

That is also the position of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

But two members of the LAPD command staff, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said they would like to be able to run immigration checks on suspected gang criminals once they are arrested.

"We cannot go there because of City Hall," one commander said.

There has been pressure from LAPD officers to relax Special Order 40. Two years ago, the Police Department slightly modified the policy to deal with officers who see, back on the street, a suspect they know has been convicted and deported. In those cases, the officer calls his supervisors, who then inform the immigration agency. But officials said this modification has been used only a handful of times.

Delgadillo said that he does not question Bratton's stance and that he himself supports Special Order 40. But he said that his office has found illegal immigration to have emerged as a much larger issue in the prosecution of gang members and that it is important to work more closely with federal authorities.

The city attorney has injunctions in place against 50 street gangs, prohibiting members from meeting.

Under the stepped-up enforcement, if a gang member is cited for violating the injunction, prosecutors check his criminal record to see if he is here legally. If the criminal records shows illegal status, the office sends the suspect's name to federal authorities for possible deportation.

That process is being formalized under the new policy. Each suspect would receive a full federal deportation hearing before being returned to his native country.

Under the gang injunctions, suspects can be charged for relatively minor offenses, such as loitering and carrying spray paint cans. Critics have said the injunctions are unfair because they sometimes prohibit close friends or even family members from congregating.

"The deportation of a known gang member who has illegally reentered the country after being deported is a relatively easy tool to reduce the gang population here immediately," Cooley said. "This is a sensitive area, but the body politic knows these people cause a lot of grief."

The stance won support from some anti-illegal-immigration activists.

"They cooperate with federal authorities on every other issue. Why shouldn't they do it on immigration," said Diana Hull, president of Californians for Population Stabilization.

The prosecutors' comments came as officials announced a 12% decline in gang violence in Los Angeles in the three months since the LAPD's current gang crackdown began. That compares with a 15.7% increase in gang crimes in all of 2006 over 2005.

"As we continue our efforts to reduce gang violence in our city, today is a day of encouragement and of promise, but it's also a day to sharpen our focus to the challenges ahead," Villaraigosa said.

Gang crime remains a stubborn problem in some areas of the city; it was up 43% last year in the Valley. During the first three months of the year, gang crime rose 2% in the Valley over the same period of 2006, representing only six additional crimes.

Comparing the same two periods, interracial gang crime, which had been increasing in recent years, declined 10%. Gang-related attacks involving African American suspects and Latino victims were down 15%, but crimes involving Latino suspects and black victims increased 3%.