Last week, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones expressed his frustration with the lack of progress toward comprehensive immigration reform in our country. That frustration is shared by many, and as Jones pointed out, the unsettled status of this issue presents real challenges to law enforcement.
President Barack Obama announced executive actions in this area, but in doing so, the president recognized that his actions were not comprehensive and he called for action by Congress.
As Jones observed, while many undocumented persons are an asset to the region, some who are in this country illegally have serious criminal histories and pose a threat to public safety. My office has long played a role in protecting public safety by identifying, prosecuting and removing such persons. These efforts are being hampered, however, not by developments on the national level, but at the local level due to a change in policy by county jails.
Under federal law, an undocumented person who was previously deported after a conviction for an aggravated felony and then found in the United States is guilty of a federal crime punishable by a substantial prison term. My office has used this criminal statute judiciously, focusing on defendants with serious criminal histories, often including violence, child exploitation and multiple deportations.
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We believe these prosecutions are important, as they not only take dangerous felons off the street and result in real prison time and then deportation, they also provide a deterrent to felons considering re-entering the United States illegally.
Recently, however, the number of these cases we have been able to prosecute has dropped dramatically. The primary reason is that a large number of the county jails throughout California are no longer honoring immigration holds placed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Undocumented persons who are detained or serving sentences in county jails for various offenses are simply released after serving their time instead of being held for immigration authorities and possible federal prosecution. This reversal of long-standing policy has resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of undocumented persons with criminal histories who are either deported or prosecuted.
This widespread practice of ignoring federal immigration holds appears to flow from concerns over the recently enacted California Trust Act and the impact of a court decision in Oregon.
While the California Trust Act established a presumption against honoring immigration holds, it carved out an exception for undocumented persons with serious criminal histories. In the court decision earlier this year, a federal district court in Oregon issued an order holding a county liable on a civil rights claim for honoring an immigration hold. That litigation is still ongoing and the long-term effects of that decision remain to be seen.
Even if counties determine they currently are unable to honor immigration holds, it is in the interest of all who protect public safety for local authorities to inform federal authorities when they identify deportable persons with criminal histories who pose a genuine threat to the community. It is my hope that there are steps that state, local and federal law enforcement may take, working together, to try and address this problem, and I look forward to participating in such efforts in the coming months.
Benjamin B. Wagner is U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, based in Sacramento.