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Sheriffs, immigration agents team up in Vista

San Diego County sheriff's deputies and United States immigration agents have forged an unusual partnership. In a controversial move, they've joined forces to patrol the City of Vista. Sheriff's officials say they're responding to an increase in property and violent crime. Latino activists worry their community is being unfairly targeted. KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson has the story.

During three consecutive weekends in May, about 20 county sheriff's deputies and eight federal immigration agents have hit the streets together in Vista looking for people who they think are up to no good.

Prendergast: "People who are driving erratically, people who are disobeying traffic laws or city ordinances, known gang members who are in violation of the gang injunction. People who are on parole and the probation officer asked us to check on their status. Those are the people we are contacting."

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 hotspots.

He invited federal immigration officers to come along because he says 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, sheriffs shot dead five Latino men, three in a single week . And at the beginning of last month, 200 riot police had a tense stand-off with immigrants' rights activists.

The following week, the sheriff's patrol arrived in the neighborhood. And the weekend after that, immigration agents rolled in with them.

Jillings: "The way the Vista Community sees this is why are they calling immigration on us? Why are they doing that?"

That's Tina Jillings, who founded the North County Coalition for Justice, Peace and Dignity after last summer's shootings.

Jillings lives in a neighborhood nearby and wants her community to be safe, but not at the expense of civil rights.

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 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."

In fact, of the 225 people arrested, about a third were cited only on suspicion they were in the country illegally and not for any other crimes. Jillings calls that racial profiling.

Captain Predergast insists skin color had nothing to do with it. But Jillings says she can prove it did. She says 30 people called her coalition's hotline alleging they were stopped because they're brown.

Prendergast says the feedback he's gotten from the Latino community is all positive. He said he hadn't heard the complaints.

Prendergast: "Number one, I don't know if it's true. Number 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."

But talking may be difficult given that Vista is about 40 percent Latino and only one sheriff's deputy there speaks Spanish.

Not only that, but when federal immigration officers accompany local sheriff's deputies, a distrustful community is quick to suspect the worst.

The fact the Vista patrols did not only target known criminals and swept up illegal immigrants have lead some to call it an immigration raid.

Immigration and Customs enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack says that's taking it too far.

Mack: "The goal of a raid is to arrest large numbers of undocumented immigrants, and that was not the goal of our participation with the Vista Sheriff's Department. We were there to assist in identifying criminals who were in the United States in violation of immigration law."

The crackdown in Vista comes at a time when illegal immigration is the topic of discussion nationally.

President Bush has called for beefed up enforcement in areas away from the border and for agents to go after criminal immigrants as part of his plan to secure the border.

Bush has also called 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.

Prendergast acknowledges his department needs to improve it. He says he's in the process of developing a Latino Advisory Committee and is trying to recruit more Spanish-speaking deputies.

Meanwhile, Jillings and her coalition are keeping logs on individual deputies to see if patterns of mistreatment develop, and will be training monitors this weekend.

Federal authorities say they're done with the joint patrols. Prendergast says he'll ask that they continue. Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

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