Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Two sheriffs, two takes on Secure Communities

Photo by Pyrat Wesly/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In a three-part series this week, KPCC's Washington, D.C. correspondent Kitty Felde has been exploring the controversy over Secure Communities, a federal immigration enforcement program that also draws in local authorities. Yesterday, the Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution backing proposed California legislation that would allow individual cities and counties to opt out of the program, which they presently can't do.

Some law enforcement officials have complained that the program, which allows for the fingerprints of people booked into local jails to be shared with immigration authorities, undermines the trust of immigrant communities and potentially impedes policing. At the same time, others have praised it.

There is a stark divide, for example, between how the program is perceived by the sheriffs in Los Angeles and San Francisco. From today's piece:

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca supports Secure Communities. He compares it to another collaboration with ICE called 287g, which trains deputies to identify possible undocumented inmates.

The sheriff says 287g has identified 20,000 criminal illegal immigrants in L.A. County over the past five years. Baca says 287g works because it focuses on criminal activity first.

"They have to be not only arrested for behavior, not ethnicity, or not status, and then the crime itself results in a trial and then a conviction," says Baca. "After the conviction, they have to serve their time. And it’s at that point they are entered into the system."

“Entered into the system” means giving details about a criminal’s immigration status to federal authorities, who then start deportation proceedings. Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside county sheriffs all adopted the 287g program and have now embraced fingerprint sharing under Secure Communities.

There has been less support for the program up north:
San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey says he's cooperated with ICE in the past, sharing information about those convicted of felonies. But in an interview with KQED, he says Secure Communities sweeps up anyone arrested.

"When you get local cops involved in enforcing immigration," he says, "it interferes with the trust that they have with the immigrant communities that they serve, it leads to people not reporting crimes, it leads to people refusing to be witnesses because they’re afraid they’re going to be deported if they go talk to the local cops."

Hennessey says he discovered it was impossible to simply "opt out" of the Secure Communities program. So instead, he says he’ll release low-level offenders rather than let immigration officials take them away.

San Francisco city supervisors attempted to pull out of the program last year, but later learned that individual jurisdictions can't opt out, as the Secure Communities agreement is between the federal government and states.

The California bill, which recently cleared the Assembly, would allow the state to renegotiate its agreement with the Homeland Security department, letting cities and counties participate only if they want to. In Los Angeles, where the police department's Special Order 40 bars officers from inquiring about immigration status, LAPD chief Charlie Beck has expressed mixed feelings about the federal program.

The governors of Illinois, New York and most recently Massachusetts have announced plans to withdraw their states from the Secure Communities, although federal officials have said it's not so easily done.

Yesterday, Felde's story examined the background of the program, which first rolled out in 2008. The final piece in the series airs tomorrow.