Capitol Alert

California law enforcement detaining fewer undocumented immigrants

Demonstrators hold up signs outside the White House in April to demand President Barack Obama stop deportation of undocumented immigrants. California law now prohibits local law enforcement from honoring federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants who are low-level offenders.
Demonstrators hold up signs outside the White House in April to demand President Barack Obama stop deportation of undocumented immigrants. California law now prohibits local law enforcement from honoring federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants who are low-level offenders. The Associated Press

Local law enforcement agencies in California are transferring fewer undocumented immigrants into federal custody, a change occurring as the state implements a new law barring jails from holding nonviolent immigration detainees for federal officials.

Cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local police officers has become a lightning rod in debates over immigration enforcement. Advocates said a program allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have local jails hold immigrants has led to the deportations of thousands who were picked up for minor offenses and posed no threat to public safety.

California’s Legislature responded to the outcry by passing a bill prohibiting local law enforcement from honoring federal requests to hold low-level offenders. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 4 after vetoing an earlier version, satisfied that it would not allow rapists or violent criminals to go free.

Early returns suggest local agencies are aiding federal enforcement less often. Data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement show that the number of undocumented immigrants local authorities transferred to federal custody plummeted by 53 percent in Northern California between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2014, compared to the previous year (the California law took effect this January). In the Los Angeles area, the drop was 15 percent.

The declines in California came amid a national reduction. According to ICE statistics, law enforcement agencies in 42 states refused 8,811 federal detainer requests between the start of January and the end of August this year. That number is a conservative estimate, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.

“When law enforcement agencies decline a detainer, they don’t typically let us know,” Kice said. “They just let the person go.”

According to ICE officials, the reduced numbers out of California could stem from the confluence of three factors: AB 4; ripple effects from a federal court decision declaring unconstitutional an Oregon jail’s detention of an immigrant without probable cause; and realignment, a program aimed at reducing California’s inmate population that transfers lower-level offenders from prisons to jails.

“You combine those three things, and it’s really made it difficult for us to be able to accomplish our mission,” said David Marin, an ICE deputy field office director for enforcement and removal in Los Angeles. “We would rather take custody of these criminal aliens right there in a safe, secure environment.”

Despite the diminished volume of holds in California, advocates have warned that AB 4 is not being applied uniformly across California. A lawsuit filed recently in Los Angeles County Superior Court charged that immigrants were detained in Baldwin Park in violation of the law.

“The reason we’re bringing this case is to send a message to police departments across the state that MALDEF and other organizations are watching to make sure they comply,” Matthew Barragan, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview after the lawsuit was filed in early October.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who authored AB 4, similarly expressed guarded optimism about the new numbers, saying in a statement that the data “seems to validate” the arguments for the legislation but warning about potential resistance.

“We have seen things that lead us to believe that some local authorities, including here in Sacramento, may be seeking to go around the intent” of AB 4, Ammiano said in a statement. “Protests and formal legal complaints have pointed out instances where people have been held and turned over to ICE inappropriately. I know that the advocates are still monitoring this and there will still be pressure on sheriffs to adhere to state law.”

A group of local advocates concerned about how the law was being implemented in light of a recent deportation met with a representative from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office earlier this week. Sheriff Scott Jones said early in 2014 that his office would comply fully with the new law, and a spokeswoman said “nothing has changed.”

But in a sign of potential tension locally, Jones also warned in a February statement that AB 4 could serve to “pit California law squarely against federal law.” His concern echoed recurring battles over immigration enforcement between states and the federal government, which wields ultimate authority to carry out immigration laws.

“Every sheriff in California must decide whether he or she will violate state law or federal law in the reconciliation of these competing laws – there is no way to comply with both,” Jones said in the statement.

All of the state’s 58 sheriffs are working to obey the new law, according to California State Sheriffs’ Association president Adam Christianson. But Christianson said his experience as sheriff of Stanislaus County has convinced him that the law lets too many lawbreakers escape consequences.

“Frankly, I think we’re releasing people into the community that shouldn’t be back in the community,” Christianson said. “Every time there’s a crime there’s a victim, and that victim deserves justice.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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