Dropping the Ball on Illegal Immigration

How the Los Angeles Times skipped out on covering illegal immigration issues this week, and how others couldn’t pick up the slack.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to speed the immigration-status interrogations of gang members in county jails. Inmates have been quizzed about their immigration status since 2006 (the idea is to quickly transfer illegal immigrants into federal custody, freeing up space in crowded county jails), but the approved plan would put gang members at the front of the interrogation list.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported the straightforward story on Tuesday, writing 825 words about the board meeting, during which county residents debated the proposal and the board submitted its recommendations:

Under the Tuesday motion, the board asked [Sheriff Lee] Baca to direct the 12 custody assistants conducting immigration interviews to give the highest priority to inmates who are known gang members.

KABC 7 also reported the story on Tuesday (you can see the video here), then posted an accompanying print story online. Unfortunately, they reported some gobbledygook, making it sound as though the plan will affect all inmates. From the print report:

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has approved a plan to root out illegal immigrants in county jails…In the past, inmates were interviewed after they were convicted, but under the new plan, they’ll be interviewed shortly after they’re arrested. Those found to be gang members in the country illegally will then be moved to federal custody.

But Tuesday’s approved plan only speeds the interrogation of alleged gang members, who are pre-classified (not “found to be,” as ABC7 phrases it) using CAL/GANG, a flawed but universally implemented state database of gang suspects.

Sheriff Baca himself made that distinction at the board of supervisors meeting, as the official transcript clearly shows. Here is Baca:

So the culling out of a new group would be exclusive to gangs alone. And so in the analysis of change, it would be that our current practice continues with the exception of gang members who might be undocumented.

ABC7’s TV report got yet another thing confused, conflating the interrogation-in-jails discussion, which falls under the auspices of the county sheriff’s department, with a plan to modify Special Order 40, an LAPD rule that limits officers’ abilities to inquire about suspects’ immigration status before arrest (which is a city mandate, and therefore under the auspices of the Los Angeles City Council).

The confusion didn’t stop there. The blog LAist promptly linked to ABC7’s story, explaining the plan as a new one wherein “undocumented immigrants…may now find themselves turned over to federal authorities following arrest,” and mentioning at the end that, according to ABC7, the plan “specifically targets gang members.” That addendum isn’t untrue; in fact, it’s the only part of the plan that’s new—which LAist, taking its post from ABC7, didn’t seem to realize.

Where was the Los Angeles Times in all this? Its only notice of the story this week was in a Monday post on the week’s upcoming news, which listed Tuesday’s impending review of the proposal. But there was no follow-up, apparently.

It’s particularly odd because if any outlet could have covered this well, it was the Times. Over the past few months, the newspaper has dedicated numerous columns, articles, and blog posts to what is obviously a significant topic among its constituents: the role local authorities should play in monitoring illegal immigration, traditionally a federal enterprise.

The issue came to the fore following the March killing of high schooler Jamiel Shaw. Shaw was killed by a Latino gang member who had just been released from jail and was also in the States illegally. Shaw’s death was something of a crucible moment, and has left the city council, the LAPD, and the county sheriff’s department all scrambling to enact countermeasures that might appease public discontent.

A spate of Times pieces appeared on the subject throughout April and in the following months. On Sunday, April 20, the paper dedicated a whole page to discussing Special Order 40. (A city councilman has proposed a motion to change this rule; the change would require officers to inquire about immigration status even if an arrest hasn’t been made.) Another article detailed the standoff between the police union and the city’s police chief, William Bratton. (The former supported local immigration enforcement as practical; Bratton said it would lead to increased cases of racial profiling.)

A piece written by an assistant professor at Arizona State University presented the results of a survey of police chiefs in the 450 largest U.S. cities, to see how many of them supported the idea of local police taking on the federal task of monitoring illegal immigration (not very many). In June, it ran a cover story about increased county funding for the jail screenings. And in July, an opinion piece discussed the dual charge that San Francisco and Los Angeles are “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants.

The Times is obviously invested in the city’s and county’s policies on—and their ramifications for—illegal immigration. Its columnists have displayed strong opinions on issues like Special Order 40. (Initially considered a crime-fighting move, it was created in 1979 to encourage illegal immigrants to approach the police with information without fear of being deported, and remains a controversial mandate.) And readers, via the comment sections of the paper’s blogs, have shown that they are interested in reading about such issues as they evolve.

One reader, who is presumably a supporter of local immigration enforcement, wrote a letter to the Times on July 31:

Kudos for the front-page article exposing San Francisco and its mayor for flouting federal immigration laws. I’m looking forward to a similar front-page story regarding Los Angeles and its Special Order 40, supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

You can read the story, about Minutemen protesting San Francisco’s sanctuary policy, here. There’s a difference between SF’s policy and L.A.’s Special Order 40, but the reader’s underlying point is true. The Times has been diligent in tracking the rollercoaster of concerns surrounding illegal immigration in the L.A. area. Even if the Board of Supervisors’ motion—putting gang members on the fast track to immigration interrogations in county jails—is just one step (forward or back) in a drawn-out process, the Times should have stayed on the ball. Especially if others aren’t doing it as well.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.