Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck's decision last week not to hand over hundreds of undocumented illegal immigrants arrested each year to the federal government for deportation is a wise choice that will help rather than hurt public safety.
The federal program Beck is challenging has never done what it was supposed to do, which is to assist with the deportation of violent and dangerous criminals who are in this country illegally. Known as Secure Communities, the program requires state and local police to share the fingerprints of anyone booked into a local jail with federal authorities, who then check them against criminal and immigration databases. If it turns out the person is in the country illegally, the federal government will ask local police to hold them for 48 hours.
In theory, that sounds great. The trouble is that Secure Communities doesn't just weed out dangerous criminals. It casts a wide net, failing to distinguish between those undocumented immigrants who pose a threat and those who do not. Under the program, tens of thousands of immigrants who have never been convicted of a crime, or who have been convicted only of minor crimes such as street vending or driving without a license, have been deported.
Beck's stance isn't a political calculation intended to win him votes — after all, he's appointed, not elected. Rather, the chief's decision is about smart policing. He, like many other chiefs around the country, doesn't think it's appropriate to have officers turned into immigration agents and jailers. That's not their job. As Beck has explained, public safety depends on the cooperation of all residents. Unfortunately, Secure Communities has eroded that trust and left many immigrants fearing that any contact with police could land them in deportation proceedings. The governors of New York, Massachusetts and Illinois have all sought to end participation in the program because it compromises public safety.
Some will argue that Beck doesn't have the authority to ignore federal law, or that his efforts are no more legal than Arizona's attempt to create its own set of immigration rules. But those arguments are specious. Secure Communities isn't a law; it's a federally funded program that was advertised as a voluntary way to help deport the most dangerous immigrants. The chief's new rules comply with that goal.
In the end, Beck's policy will probably affect only a few hundred nonviolent, non-dangerous arrestees out of the estimated 100,000 people arrested annually in L.A. But it will help ensure that police can do their job and keep all residents — without regard to their immigration status — safe. Los Angeles is better off for Beck's decision.