Attorney General Kamala Harris is saying that local police can ignore federal Secure Communities policy.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris waded into the immigration debate, telling local law enforcement on Tuesday that they have the power to ignore Obama administration requests that they hold illegal immigrants.
By issuing a bulletin to local police and sheriffs, Harris is challenging President Barack Obama, her friend and ally. She campaigned for him four years ago and again this year, and he campaigned for her when she won election in 2010.
Harris also is a savvy politician who knows how to count. Latinos probably will support her stand, and they made up more than 20 percent of the California electorate last month.
Harris' position undermines Obama's Secure Communities program, which has led to the deportation of 1.4 million illegal immigrants, many of whom broke no laws but for their undocumented immigration status.
"Local agencies are best positioned to determine the highest use of local resources, and if the local law enforcement agency determines that releasing certain individuals does not present a risk to public safety, a federal detainer request cannot, by itself, reverse that determination," Harris said in the bulletin.
Latino leaders and civil libertarians have decried Secure Communities. New York, Massachusetts and Illinois last year tried to pull out of the agreement they had signed with the Department of Homeland Security to enforce the program. The Obama administration refused to let them out.
Harris' action amounts to a withdrawal from Secure Communities without directly challenging the administration. In essence, she is saying that even though the policy remains in effect, that local police are free to ignore it.
"I trust local chiefs. They're the boots on the ground," she told me.
Harris issued the bulletin a month after Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck took essentially the same stand, announcing that the LAPD would no longer turn people arrested for low-level crimes over to federal law enforcement for deportation.
Like Beck, Harris will take her share of criticism. But she is a lawyer who has read the 10th Amendment and as she sees it, this is a states' rights issue. The feds cannot tell local police what to do, especially not on immigration, a federal responsibility.
Perhaps Congress will act on immigration in the coming year. Obama won election in no small part because of support from Latinos. Some Republican leaders grasp that they ought to stop insulting and alienating the fastest growing segment of the electorate if they want to win office. But while Washington politicians dicker, California politicians are acting.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation opening the way for the children of illegal immigrants to get into college and to obtain driver's licenses. Brown also vetoed legislation that would have forced law enforcement to cease detaining illegal immigrants unless they had committed certain serious crimes. Legislators no doubt will retool that legislation, Harris' action aside.
Brown was attorney general when the California Department of Justice signed the agreement with the Department of Homeland Security in which the state promised to help the feds enforce Secure Communities.
Harris said she might have signed it, too. The policy, as stated in the agreement, seemed to be reasonable. Its goal was to use "advanced biometric and communication technology to share information among law enforcement agencies to identify, detain and remove from the United States aliens who have been convicted of serious offenses."
As it has turned out, however, only 32 percent of individuals deported under the program have been convicted of major drug offenses, or crimes such as homicide, rape or robbery, Harris said, citing Department of Homeland statistics.
When she first took office last year, 33 percent of individuals who were held for deportation under the program had committed no crime. After protests, the feds revised the policy. The revision was hardly an improvement; 28 percent of the individuals facing deportation hadn't been arrested.
Harris' stand offers political rewards, but it definitely is perilous. An illegal immigrant who otherwise might have been deported could commit a serious crime, a sort of nightmare that keeps politicians awake. At the same time, people here without documentation might feel freer to report crimes if they don't risk deportation.
"I think it is the right stand," Harris told me. "And I'm sure it will be popular and unpopular."
Mostly, Harris' action is a recognition of certain facts: Most undocumented immigrants are here to work, and they toil in jobs most of the rest of us don't want to do. Cops have enough to do without helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement do its job. And it's not bad politics.