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Illegal Immigrants Caught in Crime Sweep

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Along the San Diego-Mexico border, a controversial relationship has developed. It's between local sheriff's deputies and federal immigration agents; they've joined forces to patrol a conservative working-class town. Not everyone appreciates the extra attention. From member station KPBS in San Diego, Amy Isackson reports.

AMY ISACKSON reporting:

During three consecutive weekends last month, about 20 County Sheriff's Deputies and eight Federal Immigration Agents patrolled the streets of Vista together looking for people they thought were trouble makers.

Captain ED PRENDERGAST (Vista Sheriffs Department, Vista California): People who were driving erratically, people who were disobeying traffic laws or city ordinances, known gang members who were in violation of the gang injunction, people who are on parole. And those are the people we are contacting.

ISACKSON: Ed Prendergast took over as Captain of the Vista Sheriff's station about eight weeks ago. He saw there'd been a four percent increase in crime citywide last year, and he decided to zero in on hot spots. He invited Federal Immigration Officers to come along after original patrols discovered that a number of the arrestees were illegal immigrants. Vista's Townsite neighborhood has been the primary area of focus. It's predominantly Latino, and tensions between the community and the Sheriff's Department run high.

In a series of incidents last summer Sheriff's shot dead five Latino men, three in a single week. And at the beginning of last month, 200 riot police had a tense standoff with immigrant's rights activists after a pro-immigrant rally in the city. The following week, the Sheriff's patrol arrived in the neighborhood, and the weekend after that, Immigration Agents rolled in with them.

Ms. TINA JILLINGS (Founder, North County Coalition for Justice, Peace, and Dignity): The way the Vista community sees this is, why are they calling immigration on us? Why are they doing that?

ISACKSON: That's Tina Jillings, who lives in a neighborhood nearby. She founded the North County Coalition for Justice, Peace, and Dignity after last summer's shootings. Jillings wants her community to be safe, but says not at the expense of civil rights.

Ms. JILLINGS: You make your arrests but you make them clean. You don't go around and walk up to somebody and say hey, give me your proof of residency. That's racial profiling and it's unconstitutional. They wouldn't walk up to a Caucasian person and ask them for that information, but they do to Latinos. That's a problem for us.

ISACKSON: In fact, of the 225 people arrested during the past few weeks, about a third were picked up only on suspicion they were in the country illegally and not for any other crimes. Jillings says she's received phone calls from 30 people who say they were stopped only because they were brown.

The crackdown in Vista comes at a time when illegal immigration is the topic of discussion nationally, and when many communities are struggling with the issue on a local level. President Bush has called for beefed up enforcement in areas away from the border and for more cooperation between local law enforcement and Federal Immigration Officers. But that's a tricky proposition; local authorities have to balance law enforcement with their relationship with immigrant communities.

In Vista, that relationship with the Latino community is badly strained and the joint patrols may increase distrust on both sides. Meanwhile, Prendergast said the feedback he's gotten from the Latino community about the joint patrols is all positive. He said he hadn't heard the complaints about racial profiling.

Captain PRENDERGAST: Number one, I don't know if it's true; and two, assuming it is true, I think it goes back to that maybe we need to make sure that we do a better job of communicating with the Latino community and establishing credibility with them, so they're willing to come and talk to us about those things.

ISACKSON: But talking may be difficult, given that Vista is about 40 percent Latino and only one Sheriff's Deputy there speaks Spanish. Prendergast acknowledges his department needs to improve its relationship with the Latino community. He says he's in the process of developing a Latino Advisory Committee and is trying to recruit more Spanish-speaking deputies. At the same time, he hopes the joint patrols will continue.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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