Obama’s action puts public safety at risk

One of the most overlooked aspects of President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration is its impact on public safety.

Last week, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones released a YouTube message to Obama, pleading with him to carry out federal responsibility on immigration for the sake of public safety – a video that has gone viral, signaling similar concerns throughout the country. The sheriff spoke of the recent killings of one of his deputies and of a Placer County sheriff’s detective, allegedly by an illegal immigrant who had been deported twice for previous crimes.

Will Obama’s executive order, authorizing about 5 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country, strengthen or weaken public safety? This is an important question for California, with an estimated 2.6 million illegal immigrants, more than any other state.

A key provision is that it replaces the Secure Communities program, which works with local law enforcement to identify and remove undocumented immigrants who commit crimes, with the Priority Enforcement Program, which will target for deportation only those who have been convicted of certain serious crimes or who pose a danger to national security.

This sounds good, but waiting until an illegal immigrant commits a crime before deporting them means that Americans must become victims of crimes before laws that should be protecting them are enforced.

There are two important, common-sense points that the sheriff made about crime and illegal immigration that are too often missed in media coverage of this issue.

First, the more undocumented immigrants in a state, the more difficult it is for law enforcement to find those with ill intent.

California has “a very large and very productive undocumented population,” Jones said, but this also “necessarily means we have a large undocumented population that chooses crime as a way of life, that chooses to victimize others, including in many instances other undocumented persons who are unwilling to call us for help.”

The facts bear out the sheriff’s concerns. As of July 2013, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were 17,676 inmates in state prisons on an immigration hold or potential hold – 13 percent of the inmate population. The cost for incarcerating these illegal immigrants, at the average annual cost per inmate of $60,623, was about $1 billion.

Crimes committed by these inmates included 3,410 murders; 611 manslaughters; 682 rapes; 2,071 robberies; 2,071 assaults with a deadly weapon; 1,066 regular assaults; 3,031 lewd acts with a minor; 738 burglaries; and 310 kidnappings. Others were incarcerated for possession of a controlled substance for sale, driving under the influence, weapons possession, vehicle theft and arson.

The undocumented inmates came from dozens of countries, with the largest numbers from Mexico, 11,649; El Salvador, 1,026; Guatemala, 553; and Honduras, 290.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data show that since May 2009, 119,347 unauthorized individuals were removed from California. Of that total, 42,949 were convicted of aggravated assaults, which include violent crimes, serious burglaries and illegal trafficking in drugs, firearms or destructive devices. Another 51,486 had been convicted of less serious crimes. And 18,675 had been removed previously and returned.

Yet Sheriff Jones has been criticized for supposedly misinterpreting the federal role on immigration as it impacts public safety, with one immigration expert stating that Luis Enrique Monroy-Bracamontes, the Mexican national accused of killing the two local law enforcement officers, would not be eligible for programs allowing him to stay in the country.

But that only proves the point: Had Monroy-Bracamontes not been here illegally in the first place, these alleged murders would not have been committed. This fact underscores the importance of Jones’ second major point: “No matter what else is done or decided, for any facet of immigration reform to work, our borders must be secure.”

Obama’s order includes some provisions to enhance border security, but his legalization of millions undercuts that mission by providing a huge incentive for more people to cross the border. The borders must be secured first before other immigration reforms are implemented if we have any hope of stopping the immigration chaos, many experts believe.

Unless Congress acts, local law enforcement, in Jones’ words, will still be “left in the wind, to plug the holes in this sinking ship of immigration.”

Margaret A. Bengs is a former Bee contributing columnist and political speechwriter who lives in Carmichael. Reach her at