Top immigration officials said Wednesday that they are doing the best they can with the limited resources they have to clamp down on illegal immigration.
The city of San Juan Capistrano hosted the panel, which included Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, Timothy Robbins, director for the Los Angeles field office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Chief Patrol Agent Paul Beeson of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego division.
About 60 local residents attended, most of whom demanded more vigilance in the effort to stem the tide of illegal immigration.
“We’re not here because we think a great job is being done,” said resident Clint Worthington. “We’re tired of people driving around without a license and insurance.”
He and other residents called for unlicensed drivers to be taken into custody and their cars impounded as a way to get more illegal immigrants off the streets.
But a continual theme the panel members sounded is that they can’t pursue every illegal alien with equal vigor. They have to decide which should and should not be detained, acknowledging that some do fall between the cracks.
“I wish I had a lot more room in my jails,” Hutchens said. “It gets down to, who do I let out? In a perfect world, anyone who commits a crime, we could keep them in jail. But we don’t live in a perfect world.”
The panel did call out efforts to show that they are making the most of the resources they do have. For example, ICE rents several hundred beds at Orange County’s low-security James A. Musick Facility near Lake Forest to house detainees waiting for possible deportation, Hutchens said. They’re criminals who have served their time but cannot be deported yet.
The detainees are eventually handed over to federal authorities, Robbins said. Some are released back onto the streets if they post a bond. But if they are to be released, it is from a federal facility, not straight out of Musick in Lake Forest.
“We have 8,000 law enforcement officers. We can remove 400,000 aliens a year. If they gave us more money, we could deport more,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Department also trains a number of deputies in immigration procedure so that they can help determine whether someone in custody is an illegal alien, Hutchens said.
She considers the program “robust.” Between January 2007 and January 2012, 145,000 inmates were screened, 18,317 were interviewed by the specially trained deputies and officials placed an immigration hold on 14,967 of them. Those identified have a very low rate of returning to the criminal justice system in Orange County, she added.
Robbins said the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Communities program allows the fingerprints taken from those arrested to be run through immigration databases as well as the FBI’s.
“We’re able to identify [illegal aliens] immediately,” he said. Federal agents can then make arrangements to transfer the suspected aliens during the time local law enforcement officials can legally hold them.
Members of the audience pressed Robbins to reveal the percentage of suspected illegal aliens who return to local streets. While he could not provide a number, he said in the end, a large majority do get deported.
The conversation took an emotional turn when San Juan Capistrano resident Shelby Cunningham revealed her daughter was killed by a drunk-driving illegal immigrant.
“I know I’m bitter, but I have a reason,” she said. “I do think we have a problem.”
After the presentation, Ailicec Figueroa, a 26-year-old Mission Viejo resident who grew up in San Juan Capistrano and who had voiced support for various law enforcement efforts in town – including the Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership – went to comfort Cunningham.
Beeson said illegal immigration, at least at the border, has decreased greatly in recent years. When he first started his career 25 years ago, only 2,500 Border Patrol agents protected the entire country. By Sept. 11, 2001, that number was 10,000, and now it’s up to about 21,700.
Meanwhile, the number of people detained has dropped significantly, from more than 1 million annually to about 350,000. He credits more boots on the ground, better technology and better tactics.
“It’s certainly clear to me that this community is frustrated at the level of illegal immigration in our community,” Beeson said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Please don’t think I’m not frustrated.”
Robbins added that although some in the audience were critical, he found it “refreshing” to be before such a pro-law enforcement audience.