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Rights advocates sue L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca over immigrant data

The sheriff says it's his duty to comply with Secure Communities, in which the fingerprints of anyone booked into a local jail are forwarded to ICE for screening.

July 01, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Activists rally at sheriff's headquarters to publicize a suit seeking information on the department's cooperation with the Secure Communities program.
Activists rally at sheriff's headquarters to publicize a suit seeking… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Immigrant rights organizations have filed a suit against Los Angeles County and Sheriff Lee Baca over what they said was his failure to release public information about the department's cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Supporters gathered in front of sheriff's headquarters in Monterey Park on Thursday, hoping to serve Baca with the complaint.

"It's our understanding that some of the people who are being deported are not criminals," said Susana Naranjo, 28. "If that's the case, then the community needs to know."

The suit is evidence of a growing feud between activists and the sheriff, who often has been an advocate for immigrant communities. The focus of the dispute is the department's role in immigration enforcement — in particular the sheriff's support for Secure Communities, a program under which the fingerprints of anyone booked into a local jail are forwarded to ICE for screening.

In May, Baca came under fire from civil rights groups when he said that illegal immigrants were not entitled to the same civil rights protections as Americans. In a letter, Baca responded that his statement had been too broad: What he had intended to say was that an arrest can temporarily disrupt the "civil right to freedom."

In their lawsuit, activists asserted that the sheriff has not adequately responded to requests for information about Secure Communities, the 287(g) agreement and the Criminal Alien Program, all of which allow deputies to cooperate with immigration officials to identify and deport illegal immigrants who are arrested or jailed. In addition to local statistics, they are seeking guidelines and other detailed information about the programs.

"In the state of California, in the country that we live in, secrecy has no place," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which filed the suit along with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

A suit filed last year by the day laborer organization forced ICE to release statistics about the number of people identified and deported though Secure Communities. The release of that information, which revealed that the program was ensnaring minor offenders, crime victims, witnesses and people who were arrested but not convicted, led governors in three states to attempt to withdraw from the program.

In an interview from his office, a few floors above the lawn where protesters had gathered, Baca said he had no knowledge of the records requests. He said that his oath of office required him to cooperate with ICE.

"This isn't something anyone can decide to be in or out of," he said. "It's the law." He noted that other officials had tried unsuccessfully to opt out of Secure Communities.

He said that he sympathized with the civil rights community but added: "I cannot escape the fact that I'm a law enforcement officer."

Immigration reform, Baca said, is the larger problem that must be addressed.

"America needs to come to grips with the truth that it needs legalized documented workers, both privately — wealthy people in their homes — and in the business community, in the agricultural and food industry," he said. "Americans do not want to work as domestic help and they don't want to work necessarily in the fields.… This country totally depends on undocumented workers in some industries."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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