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Immigrant searches reinstated in LA County jails. Was Trump a factor?

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Reed Saxon/AP

(Read caption) In this file photo, Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies inspect a cell block at the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 3, 2012.

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Federal agents have returned to Los Angeles (Calif.) County jails in search of inmates who are undocumented immigrants under a new plan put out by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, set to start this week. The plan puts the largest jail system in the country under the scrutiny of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

The sheriff's plan calls for ICE agents to have full access to the Los Angeles (LA) County jail system and databases so they can conduct investigations. But agents will only be able to interview inmates who have committed “serious” crimes, and jail officials must also notify ICE up to seven days prior to inmates’ release dates so those inmates might be investigated.

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Just four months ago, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to end a similar plan, according to local television news station KABC-TV, because the initiative was breaking down the trust between law enforcement and immigrant inmates. The move to reinstate similar oversight, but under the auspices of a different office, has drawn criticism.

"They basically are attempting to make an end run around the Board of Supervisors' vote and reinstall ICE in the release area of the jail the same way that it was before that vote," said Jennie Pasquarella with the ACLU in an interview with ABC7.

But two high-profile cases in the state this year appear to have shaken public opinion. Those include the shooting death in San Francisco of Kate Steinle, who was allegedly shot by Francisco Sanchez, who had been deported to Mexico five times. Just prior to the shooting, Mr. Sanchez had been released by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, which had refused to turn him over to ICE. The other was the rape and murder of Marilyn Pharis during a break-in in a Santa Maria home, for which two men are charged with murder, rape and torture. One of the men is an illegal immigrant with an arrest record in this country but no felony convictions.

In Los Angeles, Sheriff Jim McDonnell spoke of the new policy by saying he needs "policies and procedures that appropriately balance both promoting and preserving public safety and fortifying trust within the multi-ethnic communities that make up Los Angeles."

But Ms. Pasquarella of the ACLU says using law enforcement for deportation degrades trust between communities and police.

"The more that we have ICE agents using our criminal justice system for deportation purposes and relying on our county sheriff and police departments for that work, the more we are going to have community members who fear interacting with the police, fear interacting with the sheriff," she said.

Pablo Alvarado, director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), said in an interview with Buzzfeed he believes Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s decision was influenced by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent controversial comments on immigrants.

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“There is no doubt in my mind that the Los Angeles sheriff has been influenced by a summer of hateful scapegoating of immigrants,” Mr. Alvarado said.

In a letter to LA County Supervisors, Sheriff McDonnell said the new policies fall in line with the federal government’s announcement last year of a new deportation initiative, the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced would put under ICE’s purview the targeting of convicted criminals for deportation under PEP.

The new LA County guidelines are being billed as a way to accommodate the federally mandated emphasis on potential deportees in the criminal justice system.

McDonnell said his department wouldn’t make inmates available to ICE agents if they fall under PEP oversight, but fail to meet the standards established by the California Trust Act, which only allows local officials to make inmates convicted of serious crimes, such as burglary, assault, sexual abuse or felony DUI, available to federal immigration authorities.

The sheriff’s department also will not detain inmates beyond their date of release solely based on an ICE request, McDonnell said.

“It is the department’s aim to balance and reconcile these provisions, while also keeping in mind the needs, safety, and vitally important trust of our community,” he wrote in his letter.