Juan Martinez was looking forward to returning to his construction job after finishing a monthlong sentence for violating probation on drug charges.
But when he was finally released from the Orange County jail, he was met by immigration agents _ not his mother. The 23-year-old illegal immigrant was set to be deported with $68 in his pocket and few prospects.
"I just probably won't come back," he said about being sent to Tijuana, Mexico. "If I do, I'll keep coming back to prison and I don't want that."
Martinez is among tens of thousands of illegal immigrants being identified at jails and prisons across the country.
Considered strategic chokepoints in the search for illegal immigrants, the lockups are being monitored by an increasing number of federal agents who screen foreign-born arrestees and deport those without proper documentation.
Federal authorities are also enlisting the help of local authorities to check out immigrants who are arrested.
"There is a growing recognition that criminal aliens prey on the community at large," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "ICE is doing internal restructuring to enhance coverage of jails."
Past efforts to nab illegal immigrants in jails were haphazard and overtaxed, with federal authorities checking inmate rosters at some facilities once a week or less. The situation allowed some of the worst immigration violators to avoid detection and get back on the streets after serving time.
Conservative immigration groups are pleased with the new strategy but worry that the emphasis on jail checks is a political ploy that threatens to divert much-needed personnel and other resources from stopping illegal border-crossers.
"This is a way to do it that everybody is for but has no real effect on the overall immigration flow," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank. "It shuts up the critics."
Immigrant rights groups oppose the strategy. They say illegal immigrants might stop reporting child abuse or domestic violence to protect husbands or fathers from deportation. They also worry that people who are wrongly arrested will be deported as a result of jail screening.
"It's a practice that leads to weakening or eliminating civil liberties, first for immigrants," said Nativo Lopez, president of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Political Association.
"All of us are affected by that whether we're here illegally or can trace our roots to the pilgrims," he said.
Officials with ICE counter that more jail checks are crucial to curtail serious crimes by illegal immigrants. In December, for example, an illegal immigrant with a history of arrests for assaults and drug offenses shot two Long Beach police officers before he was killed in a gunbattle.
"This isn't really an immigration issue, it's a public safety issue," Kice said. "You can be sure there'll be a finger-pointing drill at the end of the day if they do something evil."
About half of the nearly 190,000 illegal immigrants deported by this country last year had criminal records, authorities said.
In the next two years, ICE hopes to increase that number by boosting personnel assigned to jails through its Criminal Alien Program.
For security reasons, the agency declined to provide the current number of employees in the program. But it hopes to add 220 workers starting in 2008.
The agency received a $45 million (euro34.88 million) funding increase this year to bolster criminal deportations, said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for ICE. It has requested another $31 million (euro24.03 million) next year, which would bring the budget for the Criminal Alien Program to $168 million (euro130.22 million).
The funding falls short of paying for officers at all the nation's jails and prisons. ICE hopes to extend its reach by expanding another program that allows authorities to cross-train local jail officers in federal immigration law so they can screen for illegals themselves.
The training is being pursued for use in jails by 21 police and sheriff's departments nationwide. Four counties in Southern California already participating in the program have identified more than 4,600 illegal immigrants since October, Kice said.
In Costa Mesa, a city of about 105,000 people in Orange County, an ICE officer has been posted full-time at the city jail since December. The officer identified 46 illegal immigrants in the first month, including two men with arrest records who had been deported multiple times.
Jim Hayes, director of the ICE field office in Los Angeles, wants to deploy immigration agents in dozens more city and county jails in the region by next year. In February, he will hold information sessions for interested agencies.
"We're willing to work with anyone." he said. "Our doors are open, I think it's important not to miss this opportunity."