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Secure Communities is optional, Harris says

Attorney general says the U.S. program, intended to deport illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes, had swept up too many non-criminals.

December 05, 2012|By Lee Romney and Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris says the Secure Communities program kept illegal immigrants from cooperating with police, even when they were victims.
Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris says the Secure Communities program kept illegal… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris told local law enforcement agencies Tuesday that they were not obligated to comply with a federal program whose stated goal is to deport illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

It was Harris' first public assessment of Secure Communities. Under the program launched in 2008, all arrestees' fingerprints are sent to immigration officials, who may ask police and sheriff's departments to hold suspects for up to 48 hours after their scheduled release so they can be transferred to federal custody.

Although the intent may have been to improve public safety, Harris said that a review of data from March through June showed that 28% of those targeted for deportation in California as a result were not criminals. Those numbers, she noted, had changed little since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement a year earlier pledged to reform the program to focus on the most serious offenders.

"Secure Communities has not held up to what it aspired to be," Harris said. The law enforcement bulletin she issued Tuesday stated that "immigration detainer requests are not mandatory, and each agency may make its own decision" about whether to honor them.

Harris said her office conducted its analysis after dozens of agencies across the state inquired about whether they were compelled to honor the ICE requests.

Some elected officials and local law enforcement have complained that — in addition to pulling in those found guilty of minor offenses or never convicted — Secure Communities had made illegal immigrants fearful of cooperating with police, even when they were the victims.

Harris, a former prosecutor, echoed that view Tuesday.

"I want that rape victim to be absolutely secure that if she waves down an officer in a car that she will be protected … and not fear that she's waving down an immigration officer," Harris said

While immigrant-rights advocates applauded her announcement, they said it did not go far enough. Allowing police chiefs and sheriffs to craft their own policies without state guidance, they said, could lead to disparate enforcement and enable racial profiling.

This "should eliminate the confusion among some sheriffs about the legal force of detainers," said Reshma Shamasunder, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. "The only logical next step is a strong, statewide standard that limits these burdensome requests."

One attempt by legislators to do just that unraveled in October with Gov. Jerry Brown's veto of the Trust Act. The proposed law by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) would have forbidden police departments to honor federal detainer requests except in cases in which defendants had been convicted of a serious or violent crime.

Ammiano on Monday reintroduced a modified version of the measure. Harris said she had opposed the bill's last iteration for going "too far" and had not seen the current version, but looked forward "to working with the governor and any of our lawmakers to take a look at what we can do to improve consistency."

"It's very difficult to create formulas for law enforcement," she said, noting that local agencies should have the freedom to determine which federal hold requests to honor. For example, she said, an inmate with five previous arrests for forcible rape but no convictions might still be deemed too great a risk for release.

Some law enforcement agencies, including the San Francisco Sheriff's Department and the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department, have declined to comply with federal requests to hold non-serious offenders. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck followed suit last month, announcing that suspected illegal immigrants arrested in low-level crimes would no longer be turned over for possible deportation.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who opposed the Trust Act, is among those who have argued that compliance with Secure Communities was mandatory.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said that Harris' opinion was welcome guidance that may offer sheriffs more flexibility in how they deal with immigration detainees.

"The attorney general's opinion is going to be taken very seriously," Whitmore said. "The sheriff applauds it and is grateful for it." Baca, he added, has been working with the attorney general and the governor on the issue.

In a written response to Harris' announcement, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency's top priorities were the deportation of criminals, recent border-crossers and repeat violators of immigration law.

"The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities," the statement said.

lee.romney@latimes.com

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Romney reported from San Francisco and Chang from Los Angeles.

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