How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

LA County Supes renew controversial partnership between Sheriff's Dept. and ICE

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The Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to stick with a controversial federal-local immigration enforcement program known as 287(g), making Los Angeles one of just two counties in the state to still use it — and one of a relative handful in the country.

Supervisors Gloria Molina, Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe voted in favor of renewing the program. Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky abstained.  

Dozens of people commented before the vote, virtually all of them speaking against the 287(g) program. At one point, protesters turned their backs on the supervisors, to show their disapproval of the county's partnership with federal immigration officials.

Named for a section of the immigration law that authorizes it, 287(g) essentially deputizes county cops to perform immigration enforcement tasks. It's been used by the Sheriff’s Department in local jails since 2005, with deputies trained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to screen convicted inmates in the jail system for their immigration status.

While it was never widely used, 287(g) has become fairly rare: At its height, 75 jurisdictions in the country used it. The feds scaled the program back in late 2012 in favor of the newer, more cost-effective Secure Communities. Today, only 35 jurisdictions in the country still use it.

So why would L.A. County keep 287(g), even as law enforcement agencies around the U.S. are limiting their cooperation with immigration agents? Supporters say it's for one of the same reasons the feds have not dismantled it completely: The in-depth screening interviews done in jails by local cops under 287(g) can identify people that the Secure Communities can miss.

From a law enforcement perspective, this gets more criminals into deportation proceedings. But identifying these inmates is also in the county's financial interest.

"It helps us maintain better records for the purpose of reimbursement from the federal government," said Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a supporter of 287(g).

What Pembedjian is referring to is a federal grant program known as SCAAP, for State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. Counties like Los Angeles are partially reimbursed by the Department of Justice for incarcerating certain foreign-born criminals, and the better they can document their inmate population, the better their reimbursement chances.

SCAAP funds may be used for relatively broad costs, like correctional officers' salaries, training and education for offenders, new prison facilities and other related costs. Applications for funds are filled out annually.

But in recent years, funding has been cut. Los Angeles County’s annual SCAAP award has gone from roughly $15 million in the late 2000s to about $3.4 million in 2014.

The county now gets reimbursed roughly 10 cents on the dollar for every SCAAP-eligible foreign inmate, Pembedjian said. Less than before, but it’s money the county would otherwise still have to spend.

“When these individuals are arrested and serving time in our jails, we have no alternative but to provide them with the housing, the mental health care, the medical care, food and security, which costs the county taxpayers millions of dollars every year,” Pembedjian said. “It is imperative for the county to recover the money from the federal government, otherwise if forces cuts in other vital services.”

287(g) predates Secure Communities, launched in 2008. It performs a similar function, but on the receiving end: Fingerprints of people taken into custody by local cops are checked against a federal database, and if there’s is a match with Homeland Security records, immigration agents are alerted.

Unlike with 287(g), participation  in Secure Communities isn't optional. The program was expanded in early 2013 to agencies around the country. But because it's automated and works via a database, it's not foolproof – for example, it might miss someone who is in the country illegally but has never encountered authorities.

"That's why in-person screenings, like the ones conducted by local law enforcement personnel under the 287(g) program, are of value," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE in Los Angeles.  "In these face to face encounters, we'll potentially identify individuals who are an enforcement priority for ICE...who might have gone undetected because their fingerprints weren't in DHS' database."

The agency has long had ICE agents in county jails in a supervisory capacity to review 287(g) cases, Kice said, and they also screen inmates.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had recommended to supervisors that the 287(g) contract be extended.  It’s rankled immigrant advocates, who planned to protest at Tuesday’s meeting. They said a yes vote would have the county moving against the current, as more local agencies limit how much they cooperate with immigration agents.

In California, a new law known as the Trust Act now limits who local agencies can hold at immigration agents’ request once they’re otherwise eligible to be released.

“The TRUST Act passed one year ago was a major step forward followed by Los Angeles refusing to submit to immigration’s unconstitutional detainer requests,” said immigrant rights advocate Pablo Alvarado, of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, in an emailed statement before the Tuesday vote. “Now the Board has the opportunity to further remove Arizona-style policies from LA’s books.”

Other local counties have dropped 287(g), leaving just Los Angeles and Orange participating. San Bernardino and Riverside both dropped it recently. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s detective Lolita Harper said passage of the Trust Act is one reason county officials began to reconsider.

Then earlier this year, an Oregon court ruled that issuing ICE detainers without probably cause could be a violation of constitutional rights, opening local agencies who issue them to liability.

“Once we got word of that decision, that is when we decided to suspend the program completely,” Harper said. “For us, it was pertinent because we were still using our 287(g) program.”

Los Angeles was among the local counties that said they they would stop honoring immigration detainer requests after the Oregon ruling, although advocates say the policy hasn't been applied evenly.

Pembedjian and other 287(g) supporters in L.A. County say that in any case, legal exposure isn't so much of a concern locally because unlike in some other agencies, the Sheriff’s Department uses 287(g) to screen inmates post-conviction, once they've already been convicted of a crime.

After they’ve served their time, they’re turned over to ICE.

This story has been updated.

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