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L.A. County considers new immigration program for jails in light of S.F. slaying

19 Jul

At a community meeting in Duarte hosted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department last week, one name surfaced often.

“I’m here because of Kate Steinle’s death and because I care about illegal aliens being cut loose and let out on the streets,” Orange resident Mike McGetrick told a panel of sheriff’s officials who are pondering a shift in policy at the county’s jails. “When is the next American citizen going to be murdered?”

When a five-time deportee with a history of drug-related felonies was charged in the fatal shooting of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle on a San Francisco pier this month, a debate that had been simmering for years again roared into the national spotlight: Just how much should local law enforcement cooperate with federal immigration authorities?

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who has pleaded not guilty to murder, was released from a San Francisco County jail in April despite a request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he be detained so that agents from a nearby field office could pick him up.

Before Steinle’s death, the debate over which inmates local jails should hand over for deportation was largely the realm of policy wonks and activists. But the killing has pushed the issue into the national spotlight — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has seized on it to call for stricter immigration enforcement — and has focused attention on a new ICE program that officials had been struggling to win support for.

In Los Angeles and across the country, local authorities are deciding to what degree they should participate in ICE’s new Priority Enforcement Program. Under the program, ICE asks jails to notify federal agents when inmates flagged for potential deportation are being released, and in some cases asks jails to hold such inmates so federal agents can pick them up.

Top Homeland Security officials had for months been promoting the new program, which began July 2, but had gained little traction. Since Steinle’s death, however, the new program has won unexpected support.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who as mayor of San Francisco in the 1980s supported city policies protecting immigrants who were in the country illegally from discrimination by the city, has called on San Francisco to cooperate with the ICE requests.

The new program replaces ICE’s Secure Communities initiative, which was scrapped in November by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who said that program’s “very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws.”

Under Secure Communities, federal agents routinely requested that jails hold inmates beyond their release dates so ICE could pick them up. Immigrant advocates complained that the practice eroded community trust in police and said thousands of people with no or only minor criminal convictions were deported as a result.

Last year, after a federal court deemed such holds unconstitutional, hundreds of jurisdictions nationwide stopped complying with ICE requests, including most counties in California. Since the beginning of 2014, according to ICE, cities and counties nationwide ignored 17,000 requests that they detain inmates.

The new program does away with most requests that local jails hold people until federal agents can pick them up, opting more often for requests for notification, ICE officials say.

Last week Johnson told a congressional panel that nearly three dozen of the nation’s largest counties “have indicated a willingness to participate one way or another” in the PEP program.

Five have said they won’t cooperate, and 11 are still deciding, Johnson said.

In California, Los Angeles, Orange and Alameda counties are among those cooperating on some level with the new ICE program, county officials said. San Francisco has refused.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern said he would comply with ICE’s requests for notification but added that his department will “not hold anyone in our custody a minute past their release date or time” without a judicial warrant or order.

ICE officials say the legal system has no mechanism for issuing such orders in routine deportation cases.

At the hearing, Johnson faced heavy criticism from Republicans, who asked why ICE hasn’t required local agencies to comply with all aspects of the new program.

“I do not believe that we should mandate the cooperation of state and local law enforcement officials,” Johnson said. “I believe that the most effective way to work with jurisdictions, particularly the larger ones, is through a cooperative effort with a program that removes the legal and political controversy.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) welcomed Johnson’s approach, which she called more “respectful to local communities” than previous ICE jails programs. While Secure Communities was at times presented as a mandatory program that local officials had to comply with, the new program acknowledges that local jurisdictions may craft their own policies about what types of criminal convictions would warrant notification, she said.

“Somebody sitting in Washington doesn’t know the details of how to do policing in San Jose or San Francisco or Chicago,” she said.

For some local officials, giving ICE agents so much as a heads up on release — even for those previously convicted of violent felonies and facing new charges of violence — is unacceptable without a warrant.

“The idea of notifying undermines the interest of limiting compliance with ICE,” said San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos.

He is at odds with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who told the Board of Supervisors last week that he believes the city should notify federal agents of pending releases “for serious, violent or repeat felons, including those who have previously been deported on multiple occasions.”

Many immigrant advocates oppose the new program, which they say continues to blur the line between local police work and federal immigration enforcement and sows mistrust among potential crime victims and witnesses.

Chris Newman, legal director of the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the “original sin” of both ICE programs “is they convert local criminal law enforcement agencies into civil immigration authorities at the point of arrest.”

“Local police and sheriffs have to pick winners and losers in the application of unjust immigration law,” Newman said.

In Los Angeles, county supervisors recently voted to instruct Sheriff Jim McDonnell to cooperate with the Priority Enforcement Program. But they also asked him to hold community meetings to map out exactly how to do so.

Sheriff’s deputies almost outnumbered members of the public at the meeting in Duarte on Wednesday, where officials solicited public comment about what circumstances would call for the county to honor ICE requests for notifications. The deputies were there to keep the peace after a previous meeting devolved into a shouting match.

About halfway through this forum, pro-immigrant protesters left to hold a demonstration outside, where they waved signs and chanted “no papers, no fear, immigrants are standing here.” They then walked into a busy intersection nearby and refused to budge. Marcela Hernandez, 25, an immigrant brought to the country illegally as a child, said she believes the Sheriff’s Department should have no contact at all with federal officials.

Her uncle, she said, was deported after being jailed on minor drug charges.

“He hasn’t seen his U.S.-citizen children for five years,” Hernandez said. “We should help people rehabilitate instead of deporting them.”