LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. (AP) – Sitting in a narrow strip of gray cubicles in a suburban California office, immigration agents and analysts quickly scroll through computer databases to try to determine which inmates sitting in jails across the country should be deported.
It looks more like a corporate office than a criminal crackdown, but the 85-person center is a key part of the federal government's efforts to identify and deport immigrants convicted of serious crimes.
After many police and sheriff's agencies refused to honor federal requests to hold immigrants in jail citing concerns about community relations and lawsuits, immigration agents had to work speedily to take them into custody. Now, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are trying to be more flexible to regain support from local law enforcers, asking them to at least tell them when inmates facing deportation are being freed.
"There are criminals walking out of the jail, and we're trying to minimize that to the fullest extent possible," said Timothy S. Robbins, deputy assistant director of ICE's targeting operations division, which oversees the center in Laguna Niguel.
If doing so means specializing how the agency works with local law enforcement, "we're going to do that," he said.
Immigration enforcement has been under intense scrutiny since an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times was charged with the fatal shooting of a woman on a San Francisco pier this summer.
The man was jailed by the local sheriff's department but released under San Francisco's immigrant-friendly policies despite a request by ICE to keep him in custody until federal agents could pick him up.
Several hundred cities and counties have adopted policies in recent years limiting or prohibiting cooperation with immigration agents, citing concerns about eroding ties with immigrant communities and fear of lawsuits after a federal judge ruled that detaining inmates solely based on ICE requests was unconstitutional.
Since then, immigration authorities have also narrowed their focus to people convicted of more serious crimes, and the number of so-called detainer requests — which aim to have jails hold inmates up to 48 hours for deportation officers to pick them up — dropped by 24 percent in the 2014 fiscal year from a year earlier.
At the same time, the number of people deported from the United States, not counting those apprehended on the border, fell 24 percent, federal statistics show.
Immigration authorities had begun issuing detainers based on electronic data after getting access to fingerprints from jail bookings under enhanced law enforcement information-sharing after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
ICE initially started the hub in suburban Southern California to streamline the process for the region, one of the key spots where detainers were used. Now, the Pacific Enforcement Response Center issues about 40 percent of all immigration detainers and requests for notification when inmates are being released, handling the task for much of the country on nights and weekends.
The office, which issued 6,800 detainers and notification requests between June and August, contains half a dozen computers that collect leads for potential deportees and spit out the results on a large printer. Analysts and agents then search for matches in databases for visa holders, naturalized citizens and border arrests to determine the immigration status of those booked into local jails.
In the last three months, detainers or notification requests were sent in 11 percent of the center's cases. Others are typically sent to field agents for investigation and about half are set aside because the person is here legally or doesn't have a serious criminal conviction to make them a priority for deportation under the program, which was revamped last year, ICE officials said.
Under the new approach, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department lets immigration agents interview inmates who have detainers but won't hold them beyond their release date. In Santa Clara County, officials still won't honor detainers but are weighing whether to notify ICE about serious offenders, while authorities in San Francisco won't do either despite public outcry after the shooting.
"They're kind of tailor making the program to fit every jurisdiction," said Los Angeles sheriff's commander Jody Sharp.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's New York office, said the country is creating a patchwork of immigration enforcement policies instead of the uniform system officials sought to create after 9/11.
"If we let local jurisdictions determine the nature of the immigration enforcement, all it means is local culture permeates everything else," he said.
Border enforcement advocates say too many convicted criminals are still going free, and immigrant supporters say the new approach continues to encourage racial profiling since police know when they arrest an immigrant, even on a minor charge, deportation officers can find them.
"It remains to be seen whether the constitutional defects have been repaired or merely rebooted in a different form," said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Immigration authorities say focusing on people with past criminal convictions helps combat profiling. And the government is preparing new paperwork for agencies that want to help identify more immigrants for deportation.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said cooperating with ICE should be the norm.
"No matter how much ICE is restricted and restrained, there are still places that will obstruct them," said Vaughan, whose group wants more immigration enforcement. "They will never be satisfied."