WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has quietly begun implementing a policy that gives U.S. border authorities first rights to inmates leaving federal prison who are tagged for deportation rather than allowing them to proceed on local warrants to so-called sanctuary cities.
Justice authorities outlined the program, which could involve the movement of up to 500 prisoners per year, in a Feb. 23 letter to federal lawmakers as “an effort to ensure that criminal aliens are not improperly released onto American streets.”
The move comes in the wake of the uproar that followed last year’s shooting of a San Francisco woman by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times before the shooting of Kathryn Steinle in July.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez had been turned over to San Francisco authorities on a drug warrant after his release from federal prison in March. Authorities in San Francisco, who do not often hold undocumented immigrants absent a court order, declined to prosecute Lopez-Sanchez on the drug charge and released him without notifying federal immigration officials.
Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik said the new process, which gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials priority, “is informed by the state or municipality’s willingness to cooperate with federal authorities on ICE detainers.”
The change was immediately hailed by conservative Republicans who have sought to withhold federal aid to state and municipal governments that have policies that discourage cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
“Kate Steinle would be alive today if this policy would have been in place last year,” said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who pressed for changes to the federal government’s interpretation of sanctuary city policies.
“We all owe a debt of gratitude to (Attorney General) Loretta Lynch for doing the right thing,” Culberson said. “This is a big step in the right direction.”
But the National Association of District Attorneys Association, whose members include about 7,000 local prosecutors, said the group received no notice of the policy change and feared that members could be blocked from pursuing criminal cases.
“This certainly looks like an end-run around local prosecutors,” said Kay Chopard Cohen, the association’s executive director. “That’s very concerning.”
She said the attorney general, in her congressional testimony, appeared to suggest that the government would be willing to assist local prosecutors in their efforts. But Chopard Cohen said the new policy hasn’t been fully explained.
“It remains to be seen what this looks like,” Chopard Cohen said. “It certainly hasn’t gotten off on the right foot.”
In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, Lynch said the move was “a reflection of the numerous strands of tension that arise when we work with our state and local partners.”
“This has been an issue that has raised (concerns) about public safety and comity between our state and local partners,” the attorney general said, adding that the matter has “presented a problem.”
Although the formal agreement between the federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Homeland Security was finalized earlier this month, the policy took effect in July. Authorities estimate that up to 500 inmates per year could be eligible for direct referral to ICE custody and deportation, overriding transfers to local authorities for prosecution.
Under the rules, cities could exercise their claims to pursue local warrants by signing a letter pledging to turn over suspects to immigration authorities after any local holds have expired. Local authorities also could formally petition a court for their transfer.
“Thus far, we are pleased with the way in which the new policy is being implemented and are happy to share further developments with you in the coming weeks and months,” Kadzik said in the Feb. 23 letter to Culberson.
Doris Meissner, commissioner of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, characterized the change as “reasonable, a common sense thing to do.”
“It’s hard to find an avenue for disagreement,” Meissner said.
The adoption of sanctuary policies emerged in recent years in response to a federal program that uses local law enforcement to help identify undocumented immigrants living in the country.
People arrested on local charges and booked into local jails have their fingerprints sent to the Department of Homeland Security to check for immigration violations. If violations are detected, federal immigration agents could ask local police to hold suspects for several days to give agents time to begin deportation proceedings.
Some city, county and state officials complained that the program was being abused by ICE to round up people arrested for non-violent, minor crimes, giving rise to local policies that limit local officials, including police, from assisting the federal immigration agency in those efforts.
As many communities adopted those policies — more than 300 around the country so far — ICE argued that a number of potentially dangerous immigrants were set free.