Illegal immigrants who are arrested in minor crimes will no longer be targeted for deportation, the Obama administration announced Friday in an apparent concession to the increasing number of jurisdictions pushing back against its Secure Communities program.
Immigrant advocates as well as some police chiefs and sheriffs have complained that detention orders under the program were being issued indiscriminately, snaring people who were driving without a license or selling tamales on private property.
"In order to further enhance our ability to focus enforcement efforts on serious offenders, we are changing who ICE will issue detainers against," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said in a statement. "We are constantly looking for ways to ensure that we are doing everything we can to utilize our resources in a way that maximizes public safety."
In October, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced that his department would no longer comply with federal requests to hold low-level arrestees without significant criminal records. California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris asserted earlier this month that the detainers were voluntary, not mandatory, prompting Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to reverse his policy of honoring detention orders for all arrestees.
A Baca spokesman called Friday's directive "a huge step forward." The change came several weeks after Baca and other California sheriffs met with Morton.
"The serious criminals who are coming back into this country and committing more crimes, they're the ones who should be in jail, not the low-level offenders," spokesman Steve Whitmore said.
Previously, federal agents were instructed to treat misdemeanor offenders as a low priority but were not prohibited from issuing detainer requests for them.
The detainers instruct local jailers, typically sheriffs, to hold an arrestee for up to 48 hours longer than the person's criminal charge would have allowed, giving immigration authorities more time to take them into custody.
Under the new policy, federal agents may issue detainers only for those convicted or charged with a felony; those with three or more misdemeanor convictions, excluding traffic offenses and other minor crimes; and those whose misdemeanors are more serious, such as offenses involving violence or driving under the influence.
The misdemeanor exemption does not apply to people who have previously been deported or who are considered a threat to national security.
ICE also announced that it deported 409,849 people in fiscal year 2012 — a record number, compared with 291,060 in 2007.
About 55% of the 2012 deportees were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, the agency said.
Of the more than 230,000 people deported through Secure Communities since the program's inception in 2008, about 30% were convicted of a crime no more serious than a misdemeanor, according to ICE statistics.
Immigration advocates, while heartened by Friday's policy change, cited the statistics as evidence that the Obama administration acted too late and has far more ground to cover.
"There are such a large number of people targeted through this program, who if this had been in effect since the beginning, would not have been deported," said Jennie Pasquarella, an immigration attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Pasquarella and others said the state's Trust Act, vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, was still necessary. A newly rewritten bill would prohibit local law enforcement from complying with ICE detainers except if the person has been convicted of a serious or violent crime.
"The new guidelines still allow for an excessive dragnet that will break up families, undermine trust in local law enforcement and be a drag on California's economy," said Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill's author.