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Undocumented immigrants barred from visiting loved ones in prison 

Wednesday, Feb 17 2010
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Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently floated the idea of building prisons in Mexico to house the 18,000 California inmates who are in the country illegally. We have to wonder: Could a jailbird's mom visit him in Tijuana? Because if she's undocumented, she — and any other undocumented visitors — can't do that here.

The Mexican Consulate in Sacramento is lobbying the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to change the rules, which the department concedes may be stricter than state law. California law declares a "picture passport" or a "picture identification issued by the Mexican Consulate" are valid forms of identification to visit a state prison. Mexicans living illegally in the United States often have one or the other.

But a 2002 CDCR memo to prison wardens narrowed the requirements, saying the consulate ID would be accepted for only 60 days from the first prison visit. After that, prison visitors must get a valid form of California ID — something undocumented immigrants can't do.

Advocates like Miguel Robles, coordinator of the Northern California–based Latin American Alliance for Immigrant Rights, say the requirements are unfair: "Undocumented prisoners are the most vulnerable people in the prison, and they don't even have the possibility for people to visit them. ... It's hypocrisy and it's a manipulation of the law, and it's discriminatory against people that come from different countries."

The CDCR made the decision in the memo after realizing corrections officers couldn't do security checks on prison visitors. "These IDs just don't provide the ability to do the proper criminal history reviews, as is required for US citizens," CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton says. (The Mexican Consulate doesn't do criminal checks when issuing ID cards.) "Even if you have a criminal history, [that] doesn't mean you can't get into a prison — we just need to know about it."

Kernan agrees with the Mexican Consulate that the 60-day limitation is an "underground regulation," but he said the consulate cannot avoid the fact that state law also says visitors must undergo background checks. "I could be letting terrorists and drug smugglers in," he says. "That's the fine line we walk as we try to promote visits to get offenders with their family."

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Lauren Smiley

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