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Baca's sensible shift on immigration

Illegal immigrants won't be detained for minor offenses.

December 06, 2012
  • Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is supervises the largest jail system in the nation, talks to reporters at the Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A. on Oct. 3.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is supervises the largest jail… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has spent the better part of the past year insisting that a controversial federal immigration program known as Secure Communities requires him to hold anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, if called on to do so by U.S. officials. But in fact, it does not. Compliance is optional, and on Wednesday, the Sheriff's Department conceded as much, announcing that in light of a new legal directive from California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, it will no longer detain or hand over illegal immigrants arrested for minor offenses. Baca's shift in policy is sensible and will enhance public safety.

Secure Communities was designed to identify "dangerous criminal aliens" for deportation. Local law enforcement agencies were supposed to send the fingerprints of arrestees to federal immigration officials, who would run them through national crime databases. If an arrestee turned out to be a serious criminal, federal officials could then issue a "detainer" requesting that he be held for up to 48 hours so that federal officials could take him into custody.

But in practice, Secure Communities fails to distinguish between serious criminals and nonviolent arrestees facing civil immigration violations. In California, more than half of the 75,000 people deported under the program since it began in 2009 had no criminal history or had only mis-

demeanor convictions.

In agreeing to rethink his policy, Baca joins a smart group of law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who understand that it isn't appropriate for police or deputies to act as immigration agents. Beck has pointed out repeatedly that public safety depends on community trust and cooperation, which Secure Communities has undermined in immigrant communities, where residents fear that any contact with law enforcement may result in deportation.

Baca's decision not to detain immigrants arrested for low-level misdemeanors could also help reduce overcrowding in county jails, which until now have been used as de facto immigration detention centers. That is both fiscally imprudent — since the federal government doesn't reimburse the county — and poor public policy, given that the current jail system is so overcrowded that many inmates are released before serving their full sentences.

While Baca deserves praise for embracing the new policy, we hope that he also establishes precise, written protocols to help deputies do their jobs properly, and ultimately keep county residents safer from those who truly pose a danger.

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