New state law limits immigration holds to serious crimes

10/06/2013 12:00 AM

10/05/2013 6:40 PM

Over the past year, the Los Angeles Police Department has put in place a policy allowing more discretion in how the city’s law enforcement navigates the complex nexus of immigration and crime.

It no longer has that authority.

On Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown announced he had signed a bill setting guidelines that dictate when local law enforcement must detain arrested immigrants – allowing federal authorities to claim those here illegally – and when jails must release those immigrants.

Under the new law, unless immigrants have committed certain serious crimes, they cannot be detained past when they would otherwise become eligible for release.

Brown also signed a measure, AB 1024 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, that will allow undocumented immigrants to be licensed as attorneys in California.

In a prepared release accompanying the signings of those bills and six other immigration-related measures, Brown repeated the rationale he recently gave for signing another bill offering undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses: “While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead. ... I’m not waiting.”

When a similar detention bill came across his desk last year, Brown rejected it.

Immigrant advocates had clamored for California to implement a law resisting a federal initiative known as Secure Communities that, by enlisting local law enforcement, helped deportations soar to a historical high. Skeptical of the implications for public safety, Brown vetoed the legislation.

An updated version of the bill emerged from the Legislature this year and made enough changes to earn Brown’s signature. That has fueled concern among law enforcement officials like Michel Moore, assistant chief of police for the Los Angeles Police Department, about the rigidity and scope of the new rules.

In heavily Latino Los Angeles, Moore had heard the complaints about Secure Communities.

Instituted under President George W. Bush and expanded by President Barack Obama, the program aims to weed out criminal immigrants by having arresting officers share fingerprint data with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration enforcement. If the prints register a match, federal authorities can have local agencies hold on to arrested immigrants until they can be placed in removal proceedings.

The program seeks to buttress public safety by identifying dangerous, foreign-born lawbreakers and sending them back to their home countries. But federal dragnets were also snaring low-level offenders and those without criminal histories. People can face deportation if they are not convicted of a crime.

“There were a number of individuals who detainers were being issued on for petty, low-level offenses, and for us that didn’t seem to strike us as the essence of why the detainer was being issued,” Moore said, referring to the requests issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

Similar concerns about Secure Communities spurred a national groundswell of opposition, in some cases from governors and mayors who otherwise register as stalwart Obama administration allies. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, authored a bill in 2012 that would have barred local law enforcement from honoring most requests to hold arrested immigrants for federal authorities.

The governor vetoed it, saying too many legitimately violent criminals would slip through. But local entities still enjoy some autonomy in the matter. California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in December that law enforcement has no obligation to participate in Secure Communities.

“Local law enforcement agencies in California can make their own decisions about whether to fulfill an individual ICE immigration detainer,” Harris wrote in a memo. She told The Sacramento Bee that she wanted to defer to “the boots on the ground.”

Moore’s strategy picked up on that reasoning. His department began seeking more information on detainer requests so it could understand which cases constituted serious threats, like national-security hazards or drug-trafficking cases, and which stemmed from administrative matters like visa overstays.

Data shows that immigrants tend to be more law-abiding than the general population, Moore said. While his department showed no leniency to immigrants who commit violent or serious offenses, he said, they began refusing some detainer requests.

“It reinforces that local law enforcement can be looked upon by all communities as a trusted part of government that’s not going to concern itself with matters of immigration status, but that when we’re called upon, the victims of a crime do not lose their rights as an individual to not be victimized,” said Moore. “It goes to reinforce what LAPD has talked about for decades,” he added, “which is that a person’s alien status is not a matter for LAPD.”

Ammiano resurrected his bill in 2013. After expanding the types of crimes that allow local authorities to hold on to arrested immigrants, such as felony domestic violence and DUI convictions, Ammiano earned the governor’s support.

Now, when it comes to Secure Communities, state law will override the boots on the ground.

That represents a victory for those who see Secure Communities as a deeply flawed program in which wildly different offenses, from egregious crimes to minor violations, end equally in deportations. The program’s detractors are happy to see it effectively suspended for nonserious transgressions.

“If an individual is here and is not convicted of any major crime, that individual should be released into the community,” said Homayra Yusufi-Marin of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the bill’s sponsors. “They shouldn’t be a priority to detain and deport. It’s just a waste of resources.”

But for the law enforcement organizations that have opposed the law from its initial hearing to its final vote, it threatens to undercut law enforcement by turning criminals loose. Mark Zahner, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, worried that the bill represents an attempt to pre-empt federal immigration law with state policy – a formula that landed Arizona’s controversial immigration law before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The whole concept of allowing people who have these holds on them to be released without the holds being executed runs counter to working with our federal partners,” Zahner said. “Law enforcement sees itself as one big community that works with different facets of law enforcement.”

Advocates counter those arguments by couching the bill in terms of public safety. In addition to fragmenting families, they say, Secure Communities discourages immigrants from going to police officers because it transforms cops into an extension of the federal immigration apparatus. The risk is particularly acute, advocates say, for victims of domestic violence. Potential witnesses to crime may remain silent.

“It’s very, very clear that when you give that authority to local police, it leads to mistrust,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network.

Moore does not disagree with that logic, and he said he sees the value in a statewide standard in place of “a patchwork of varying enforcement postures depending on where you go in California.”

But he has concerns about weakening local discretion to determine what counts as a serious crime.

“How do we find that sweet spot of when that is appropriate” for a crime to merit holding people for deportation, Moore asked, “and when is that creating a backlash of distrust against law enforcement from an immigrant community, where we depend on them depending on us, and are willing to come forward as witnesses, as victims?”

For Maria Sanchez, the distinction in her own life is clear. A 45-year-old undocumented immigrant who lives in Los Angeles, Sanchez spent three days in jail after a car crash in October 2012. The charges against her were dropped, but she continues to face the prospect of being separated from her two young children.

“The judge listened to my words saying I wasn’t a criminal,” Sanchez said through a translator at a recent rally near the state Capitol, flanked by an 11-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. “But he said they were passing me on to immigration.”

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