A locked cellblock inside the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
A locked cellblock inside the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: There are, by most estimates, as many as a million illegal immigrants here in Los Angeles. They pose a number of challenges to social services, education and law enforcement. Specifically, should cops protect or prosecute? The question was complicated a bit yesterday when county officials extended a program that identifies undocumented immigrants in county jails and turns them over to the federal government.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports.

Jeff Tyler: At the Los Angeles County jail, after inmates are convicted, they're interviewed about their immigration status. That information is turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

L.A. County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore says about 20 percent of the jail inmates are in the U.S. illegally. Turning them over to immigration enforcement could save real money, because it shifts the cost of incarceration over to the feds.

Steve Whitmore: When you figure that it costs $80 to $90 million a year to house the 20 percent population out of the 16,000 to 18,0000 we have in our jails, the cost savings is many millions of dollars.

Angelica Salas is with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She understands the financial incentive for the Sheriff's Department

Angelica Salas: Almost all local law enforcement agents that are seeing incredible cuts are looking for any way by which to increase their revenue.

But Salas says the program makes communities less safe. She says people have been calling her organization's hotline when they should be dialing 911.

Salas: We have individuals who have been victims of robbery, who have been victims of sexual assault. And before the family calls the local law enforcement agent, they're calling our hotline, because they want to be assured that they won't be turned over to ICE if they report this crime.

That distrust isn't likely to change soon. Deportations have been increasing significantly. In the last fiscal year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed a record-breaking number of undocumented aliens.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

Follow Jeff Tyler at @JeffMarketplace