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The push by two Orange County police agencies to arrange training for some of their officers to help enforce federal immigration laws has opened a rift in Southern California law enforcement circles, with some officials fearing the move will harm crime-fighting efforts.
The Costa Mesa Police Department and Orange County Sheriff's Department are developing plans for their officers to be trained alongside federal immigration agents so they can understand and help enforce immigration laws.
They are among the first in the nation to seek the training, and their effort has generated both interest from other agencies and protests from immigrants' rights groups.
"Dozens of jurisdictions have reached out to us and asked us for copies of this policy," said Jon Fleischman, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department. "Like with any instrument that provides a resource to find criminals, departments are looking at this to see if this will help fight crime."
But in Los Angeles, the county's two top cops -- Sheriff Lee Baca and police Chief William J. Bratton -- have come out solidly against such steps, saying it would damage hard-earned efforts to build trust in immigrant communities.
They argue that local police are busy enough dealing with crime and that immigration enforcement should be left to the federal government.
"The Orange County talk is cheap," Baca said. "I want to see how arresting a young 18-year-old girl trying to get a job goes down when robbery and burglary calls for service aren't being responded to. The public will say, 'We've had enough of this.' Let the federal government do its job."
The two Orange County agencies say they would not conduct sweeps but only check the status of suspects they stop.
For nearly three decades, the LAPD has enforced a strict policy prohibiting officers from stopping or questioning someone solely based on their immigration status. The policy, known as Special Order 40 and approved by then-Chief Daryl Gates, was part of an effort to improve relations between officers and illegal immigrants, who officials say were often afraid to report crimes or cooperate as witnesses.
"It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of practical policing," said LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon. "If an undocumented woman is raped and doesn't report it, the suspect who raped that woman, remember, could be the suspect who rapes someone else's sister, mother or wife later."
But politics is clearly intertwined in the debate.
Activists fighting illegal immigration, including people involved in the Minuteman Project, have cheered the efforts in Orange County to enforce all laws at the local level. In Los Angeles, immigrant rights groups have been pressing their case to Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who came out last week against training officers for immigration enforcement.
Still, the issue has been getting law enforcement's attention nationally. The International Assn. of Chiefs of Police has opposed any efforts in the U.S. to require local police to enforce immigration laws.
The Orange County Sheriff's Department wants to send 200 deputies for special training by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and hopes federal approval comes soon. Likewise, Costa Mesa seeks training for up to 40 officers initially, mostly detectives, gang investigators and jail personnel.
The training will be to familiarize officers with immigration law, give them an understanding of the federal immigration bureaucracy and let them observe how federal agents do their jobs.
The training will help the officers work more smoothly with federal agents to verify the immigration status of people they suspect of criminal wrongdoing, said Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, a strong supporter of the plan who is also an Orange County sheriff's deputy. If a suspect is found to be an illegal immigrant, police would report that to federal officials, who will ultimately have the power to start deportation proceedings, he said.
Giving local officers the ability to immediately access criminal suspects' immigration status is significant: If an officer finds that a suspect is an illegal immigrant, the suspect can be detained on that charge, even if there is not enough evidence to make an arrest on the crime initially suspected. And if the check finds that the suspect was previously deported and then came back into the United States -- a more serious charge -- the officers could also immediately make an arrest.
By contrast, LAPD officers are for the most part prohibited from checking a suspect's immigration record at the time of arrest. If a suspect is arrested, the immigration status is usually discovered later, during booking and charging.
Mansoor emphasized that officers wouldn't be looking for illegal immigrants.
"The focus is criminal offenders," he said. "This will make the community safer for everyone, including people who are here illegally but otherwise are law-abiding."
Sheriff's officials said the training would help deputies more easily identify illegal immigrants with convictions in their home country who are now in the United States.
Supporters of the policy also counter objections by Baca and other opponents that the training would make illegal immigrants less likely to cooperate with law enforcement. The supporters point out that many of the criminals who prey on immigrant communities are themselves illegal immigrants. Mansoor and others say residents will understand that the training is designed to take such people off the streets, not pick on the average person.
As for concerns that the new policy would lead to deportation of undocumented immigrants who are initially suspected of crimes but ultimately not charged or found not guilty, Mansoor added: "If someone is here illegally, they can be deported as is, now. There is no expectation that if you are here illegally, you are allowed to stay."
The policy has won the two agencies praise from anti-illegal immigration groups, and at least two other Orange County cities -- Westminster and Garden Grove -- are considering similar training. But the two agencies have also been dealing with a backlash from some Orange County Latinos.
Paty Madueno, a leader with an umbrella group of churches in Orange County, said the policy "has caused fear, panic and hate.... I know there are a lot of families that are very worried."
The debate underscores the sensitive relationship between local police and federal immigration authorities -- especially in Southern California, with its large immigrant communities. In Los Angeles, some officers have complained that Special Order 40 is too restrictive and makes it difficult for them to identify suspects.
The department drew scrutiny from some immigrant groups last year when it "clarified" Special Order 40.
The clarification allows officers to arrest and initiate immigration checks on suspects they believe to be convicted violent felons who were deported but then reentered the U.S. illegally.
The change came after some anti-gang detectives learned that a suspect they had helped convict of a violent crime and was later deported to Mexico was back in Los Angeles. They were not sure whether they could arrest him under Special Order 40.
With the moves in Orange County garnering national headlines last week, Los Angeles officials reassured residents that they had no plans to follow suit.
It's a message even some Orange County cities are sending out.
"It doesn't seem to me that local governments' taking on [enforcement of immigration laws] as an initiative is necessarily the best use of local resources," said Irvine Mayor Beth Krom. "Why create an environment that pits neighbor against neighbor or causes a person in line at the grocery store to look suspiciously around?"
Times staff writers David Haldane and Jennifer Delson contributed to this report.
PHOTO: PROPONENT: Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, who is also an Orange County sheriff's deputy, says sweeps will not be conducted. PHOTOGRAPHER: Christine Cotter Los Angeles Times