ESCONDIDO, Calif. -- It was just an inconvenient traffic stop on the way through town for Javier Barrera Saldivar. Police had spotted the broken taillight on his car, and he figured he'd get a fix-it ticket and be on his way. But federal immigration officers soon rolled up, wielding handcuffs and Barrera's mug shot on a cell phone.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been stationed at the Police Department of this San Diego County city since May, responding to everything from traffic stops to gang sweeps in an aggressive effort to clear the community of illegal immigrants with deportation orders or criminal records.
Barrera, 24, the records showed, was a previously deported illegal immigrant with convictions for drunken driving and possessing a false driver's license. Instead of receiving a traffic citation and being released -- which is what typically would have occurred -- he was arrested and placed in deportation proceedings.
Barrera is among 303 illegal immigrants arrested and placed in deportation proceedings so far in a program dubbed Joint Effort, which allows federal agents to reach deeper into the streets for immigration scofflaws than in almost any other community in the country. Most arrests are of illegal immigrants with deportation orders and drunken driving records, but gang members and sex and drug offenders have also been snared and deported.
Since the pair of ICE agents moved into police headquarters, the pilot program, which was recently made permanent, has been hailed by many as a welcome expansion of federal authority. ICE officials say they would consider expanding the program if other communities expressed interest.
But opponents say the presence of immigration officers on the streets of Escondido has put Latinos, who constitute slightly more than 50 percent of the population of 140,000, on edge.
One local immigrant rights group last year issued a travel advisory for people visiting the city, saying the program invites racial profiling. Critics contend that the measure is the latest effort by City Hall, which once tried to punish landlords for renting to illegal immigrants, to create a hostile environment for Latinos.
"The city of Escondido is the Arizona of San Diego County," said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego and Imperial counties. "The program is an extreme example of local police working with federal immigration agents, and neglects the tremendous harm to public safety from scaring to death our immigrant communities."
But backers call the program a balanced approach toward changing Escondido's status as a revolving-door destination for previously deported illegal immigrants. Officers arrest only previous deportees or people with criminal records; illegal immigrants encountered on city streets who have clean records are not arrested, said Police Chief Jim Maher.
"We're here to protect everybody regardless of what their (immigration) status is, but if they're criminals then we make every effort to get them out of Escondido," Maher said.
Federal immigration officers working shoulder to shoulder with local police would be a welcome sight in many regions of the country where there is growing support for tougher enforcement measures against illegal immigration.
"I think there are many police departments across the country that would love to have a similar arrangement, if ICE were able to staff it," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supporters stricter immigration laws.
With the Obama administration under pressure to burnish its immigration enforcement credentials, Joint Effort represents one of the boldest measures yet to boost deportation numbers. Most deportations of criminal aliens -- 58,000 nationwide in the last two years -- result from ICE agents and local police running immigration checks of inmates at jails. The Escondido program goes a step further, targeting immigrants who come in contact with police but would not typically be booked into jail.
ICE officials in San Diego said officers regularly encounter illegal immigrants in Escondido with no criminal records. They are not detained because the program focuses only on people who are deemed threats.
"Escondido is not a huge community, and police were seeing these guys over and over again," said Robin F. Baker, ICE's director of enforcement and removal operations in San Diego. "These are people that have victimized the community before."
A young man recognized by police as a previously deported immigrant, someone hanging out with known gang members or someone pulled over who can't provide identification can now be subject to an immediate immigration check.
When Escondido police officers pulled over Barrera in October for the broken taillight, he couldn't provide a driver's license. He gave his name to the officer, who called ICE agents. A few minutes later the agents rolled up to the scene, having determined through a database check that Barrera had previous convictions and had been deported in 2005. After they confirmed his identification through the image on a cell phone, Barrera was arrested. The woman and child in the car were not checked for their status, police said.
Few police departments in California, including the Los Angeles and San Diego departments, inquire about immigration status on routine police contacts. The Escondido program is most similar to one in Arizona, where federal immigration officers can respond to traffic stops. Under that program, however, all illegal immigrants, regardless of criminal history, can be arrested, according to ICE.
Having immigration officers inside the city, Escondido police say, has made the city safer by exposing people who pose a threat. One man stopped for walking after hours along a drainage canal turned out to be a convicted wife batterer; another man pulled over for having tinted windows in his car, an immigration check showed, was a convicted child molester.
But critics contend that most detainees are people with drunken driving convictions from long ago who are hardly criminals.
"What about a person who was 21 years old, convicted in 1979, and here we are in 2011, he's now in his 50s, has a family and hasn't had any law enforcement contact, and he gets deported. Is that what we want?" said Bill Flores, a local activist and former assistant sheriff for San Diego County. "It ruins lives unnecessarily."
When Salvador Santoyo Juarez, 61, was pulled over last month for a having tinted windows in his car, an immigration check revealed that he had convictions for child molestation, drug transportation and drunken driving -- all more than 20 years old.
To his family, the grandfather of eight was hardly a threat to the community, spending most of his days resting his injured hip in front of the TV. His wife, Carmen, 54, said his deportation would tear the family apart.
"There are so many bad people, and they focus on the one who does nothing," she said. "How sad."
But police and federal agents said Santoyo is just the kind of person Joint Effort was designed to snare. Maher, the police chief, said he hopes the word gets out so illegal immigrants with criminal records who are considering a return to the U.S. will think twice about it.
"Maybe at some point that criminal alien will say, 'You know what, I'm going back to America, but I'm not going back to Escondido, because they have this program,' " Maher said.
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