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Immigration: Trailblazer or a pariah?

May 13, 2006|By Alicia Robinson

Nearly six months after the Costa Mesa City Council blazed a trail by voting to be the first U.S. city to enforce immigration laws, there has been a scattering of local immigration reform efforts around the country but no mass movement by other municipalities to follow Costa Mesa's lead.

Recent estimates peg the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. at as many as 12 million, and some have blamed them for a litany of problems such as crime, crowded hospitals, lower property values and schools' poor test scores.

The Costa Mesa City Council in December voted, 3-2, to train some city police to check the immigration status of felony suspects. The plan is not yet in place, but it created a political firestorm, with protests before every council meeting and people from around the state praising the city's action.

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But for all the media attention and in some cases accolades the city has received, it doesn't appear any other cities have taken the same step.

To become authorized for immigration checks, law enforcement officials must go through training with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handles deportation of immigration violators.

The agency now has training agreements with seven agencies ? three state and four county sheriffs' departments, three of which are in Southern California, department spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.

Requests from 15 other agencies around the nation are pending, she said, adding: "I'm not aware of any cities."

Law enforcement agencies and their professional associations in many cases are split on immigration enforcement, but most don't want to be forced to take on that extra duty, said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police.

"I think regardless of where we end up, the question of whether it should be mandatory has pretty much been settled ? this should be decided at the local level," he said.

Mandatory enforcement is exactly what could happen in Georgia, where legislators in April passed a law that requires law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone arrested on suspicion of committing a felony or drunk driving, among other provisions.

"I've been doing this 10 years. This is one of the most controversial bills I've seen," said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Assn. of Chiefs of Police.

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