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Orange County supervisors approve deal to house federal immigration detainees in Irvine and Orange

July 20, 2010 | 12:15 pm

Orange County supervisors approved a contract Tuesday to house federal immigration detainees at two county jails, a deal that would bring in more than $30 million a year and help save jobs in the Sheriff's Department.

The Sheriff's Department has been negotiating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for months to house more than 800 detainees at the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine and the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange.

The jails have dorm-like facilities that ICE prefers for holding detainees, former inmates who have completed their sentence and have been transferred to federal custody pending resolution of their immigration status. Often, the detainees are ultimately deported.

The money will help the Sheriff's Department offset a projected $65-million budget shortfall next year and stave off cutbacks and layoffs. But even with the contract, the department may be forced to cut its workforce, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has warned. She said Tuesday that the department has no immediate plans for layoffs.

ICE has no facility of its own in the greater Los Angeles/Orange County area and contracts with local jails to house detainees or sends them to other states. Both the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Santa Ana city jail house immigration detainees.

Orange County has more than 6,600 jail beds, the Sheriff's Department said, and 2,000 of them are empty at the moment.

Earlier this year, the Sheriff's Department released several hundred inmates before the completion of their sentences. At the time, Hutchens was criticized by those who said the early release was timed to make room for federal detainees. The sheriff said the releases were mandated by a new state law that recalculated how much of an inmate's sentence needs to be served.

Though the contract's approval would be welcome news for the department's budget, it faces opposition from the city of Orange.

In March, the city sent the county a letter voicing its concern that the contract would expand the jail and violate the existing agreement regarding the facility. The Theo Lacy jail sits in the middle of a sprawling county complex, across the street from the Block at Orange shopping center.

City officials have suggested that they might sue the county, and the matter will likely be debated at the regular council meeting next week, said City Manager John Sibley.

"It's still contemplated," he said. "We're wanting to preserve [the agreement], but we also understand what the county is dealing with."

-- Raja Abdulrahim in Santa Ana