LA County Sheriff's Department will continue to cooperate with immigration agents

File: Immigrants prepare to be unshackled and set free from the Adelanto Detention Facility on Nov. 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California.
File: Immigrants prepare to be unshackled and set free from the Adelanto Detention Facility on Nov. 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California.
John Moore/Getty Images

In a letter to the county's governing board, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said deputies in county jails would continue to abide by California’s Trust Act when determining how they cooperate with federal immigration agents who seek to deport men and women who don't have legal immigration status and are found guilty of crimes.

Earlier this year, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors asked McDonnell for an updated plan for how the department would cooperate with immigration agents.

McDonnell ushered in a series public forums this summer, where residents around L.A. County spoke passionately about the role federal immigration agents should have in the local jails, and the extent that deputies should cooperate with federal detainer requests.

In those hearings, immigration advocates urged county deputies to bar federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from the jails. They criticized a sweeping federal enforcement program from the past, Secure Communities, saying it led to the deportation of many non-violent offenders or non-offenders — and in the process has alienated local immigrant communities, who are fearful to report crimes or help with investigations.

Secure Communities launched in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration. It was expanded under President Barack Obama; critics blamed the program for record deportations under the Obama administration.

Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of immigrants booked at local jail facilities were shared with immigration agents via a federal database. If there was a match, local authorities were asked to hold people for deportation.

Some states and local jurisdictions resisted, including California, where in 2014 the state legislature passed a law known as the California Trust Act. The law curtailed Secure Communities' reach, placing limits on who local cops could detain at the request of federal agents.

Under that state law, county deputies working in the jails were not required to comply with ICE requests in the cases of deportable inmates found guilty of low-level offenses. L.A. County has abided by the Trust Act since its passage.

In the meantime, Obama discontinued Secure Communities late last year and replaced it with a more moderate federal policy: the Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP. PEP targets immigrants convicted of more serious crimes, not unlike the Trust Act.

When PEP became the new federal program, Sheriff McDonnell was asked to review and adjust his department's policy to make sure it aligned with both PEP and the Trust Act.

Immigration advocates hoped this review would lead to further softening of the county’s policies, arguing that ICE had no place in the local jails. But the pendulum appeared to swing out of their favor this summer when Donald Trump reignited a national debate about immigration, speaking publicly about the killing of a San Francisco woman at the hands of an immigrant who was in the U.S. illegally and had been released from local custody.

That brought out anti-illegal immigration activists, who also packed the sheriff's public forums this summer and clashed with immigrant advocates. They argued that the Sheriff’s Department should tighten its interpretation of the law and maximize cooperation with ICE.

Some wanted a return to a program known as 287(g), which allowed deputies to act as immigration agents in the jails, screening inmates for immigration status. County supervisors voted to end participation in the voluntary program last May; Los Angeles was one of only two remaining counties in California using the program at the time.

Some of the language in the Sheriff's Department plan is reminiscent of 287(g): The plan mentions that ICE agents will be allowed to interview "specific inmates" who aren't the subject of an ICE detainer request. ICE agents will first screen them to confirm that they "have a high likelihood of being in the United States illegally," along with meeting the bar set by PEP and Trust Act to be transferred to federal agents.

In the past, this kind of in-person screening was done by Sheriff's deputies trained by ICE under 287(g). Proponents of that program said manual screening helps catch deportable inmates whose fingerprints don't show up in the federal database, which is also a key component of PEP. 

According to the Sheriff's Department, ICE agents continue to have a presence in local jails; permanent ICE office space was discontinued after the local 287(g) was dismantled, but agents still have access to temporary work space.

Immigrant advocates said Tuesday they were disappointed that the department would take any additional step to cooperate with ICE agents.

“It seems that the sheriff has been impacted by the Trump effect,” said Chris Newman, an attorney who directs the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Anti-illegal immigration advocates say that while they'd like more cooperation, they're relatively pleased, especially with the language that lets ICE screen inmates without detainers.

"The spirit of that particular statement does give us some hope that our country, our city, our state will be safer, so we are actually very pleased that the Sheriff did include that in the draft," said Robin Hvidston, an activist with We the People Rising, an immigration-restriction group.

While McDonnell's plan is not dramatically different from the department’s current policy, it does include a few changes that will benefit inmates.

He wrote: “At the suggestions of immigrant advocacy groups, the Department will implement a system for notifying inmates when an ICE detainer is issued. In addition to the notification, inmates will be advised of their opportunity to consult legal counsel.”

He also said that the department will submit to monthly audits to ensure that only California Trust Act-qualified inmates are transferred to ICE, and only during the standard time period it would normally take to release an inmate.

McDonnell noted his approach attempts to strike a balance. In his statement, he wrote of his “commitment to work closely and cooperatively with federal authorities,” and later that the L.A. Sheriff's Department must “partner with some of the most diverse and immigrant-rich communities in the world.”

You can read the sheriff's new policies below: 

Updated policies