US & World

California's battle with Washington over undocumented 'holds' is thawing

Protesters with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) hold signs as they march during an anti Secure Communities program demonstration on August 15, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Protesters with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) hold signs as they march during an anti Secure Communities program demonstration on August 15, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

New federal guidelines from immigration officials could defuse the fight in California over “holds” on low level undocumented arrestees.

It’s been a battle long in the brewing – part two in the fight over Secure Communities. But it may be headed to a close.

When someone is arrested, local law enforcement uses the FBI fingerprint data base to see whether the person is wanted in another state for another crime. That fingerprint is also checked against federal files to check immigration status. If the person is discovered to be here in the U.S. illegally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement can issue a “detainer,” asking the local jail to hold the person 48 hours until federal officers can pick them up.

Earlier this month, California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a legal opinion that “the federal government cannot compel local law enforcement to honor ICE holds.” A review from the AG’s office showed more than one in four people deported from local jails had never been convicted of a crime.

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said he’d have a new policy in place by the end of the year that would no longer hold low-level offenders. L.A. Police Department Chief Charlie Beck put the policy in place this fall.

Baca has been talking to both ICE officials and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Late Friday, ICE changed its policy.

Now, ICE will only issue Secure Communities detainers for those they suspect are subject to removal from the United States and the individual is:

ICE says given limited enforcement resources, three or more convictions for minor traffic misdemeanors should not trigger a detainer unless there’s a clear and continuing danger to others.

John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says “smart and effective immigration enforcement relies on setting priorities for removal and executing on those priorities.” He says ICE is “constantly looking for ways to ensure that we are doing everything we can to utilize our resources in a way that maximizes public safety.”

A spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca says the new ICE policy makes any new L.A. County guidelines “moot.”

California Attorney General Harris has not yet commented on the new policy. Neither has LAPD Chief Beck. But it’s expected the new ICE proposals will not please everyone.

ICE cites nearly half a dozen cases over the past 14 months from one Northern California county – Santa Clara – where the decision to ignore ICE’s previous requests to detain undocumented immigrants resulted in new crimes. All five were released by officials at the Santa Clara County jail.

Cases include:

All five cases would still trigger a “hold” under new ICE policies.

Santa Clara’s policy this past year has been to hold arrestees based on current criminal charges, not immigration status. Santa Clara has also not yet commented on the revised ICE policy.