Debate over immigration program heats up after San Francisco shooting

Protesters with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) hold signs as they march during an anti-Secure Communities program demonstration in this August 15, 2011 file photo taken in Los Angeles, California. A new federal program aimed at replacing Secure Communities would only allow local law enforcement to share information with immigration officials when an immigrant suspect is a convicted criminal, but the plan is drawing heat from both sides.
Protesters with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) hold signs as they march during an anti-Secure Communities program demonstration in this August 15, 2011 file photo taken in Los Angeles, California. A new federal program aimed at replacing Secure Communities would only allow local law enforcement to share information with immigration officials when an immigrant suspect is a convicted criminal, but the plan is drawing heat from both sides.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is rolling out a new federal program that changes the way deputies cooperate with immigration agents, but the plan is meeting with more heat than expected after a recent fatal shooting in San Francisco.

The new program replaces the discontinued Secure Communities, which promised to target criminals for deportation but which critics argued cast too wide a net by deporting immigrants who had been arrested for less serious, non-violent offenses.

The Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, would still allow the fingerprints of immigrants arrested by local cops to be shared with immigration officials, but the idea is to limit the focus to those who have been convicted of a crime.

In May, L.A. County supervisors gave the Sheriff’s Department 90 days to seek community input as they rolled out the new program. At the time, most of the input was coming from immigrant advocates, who complained that PEP was still too stringent. But in recent weeks, the conversation has shifted. 

Conservative activists have rallied around the July 1 shooting of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. The suspect is an immigrant who had been removed from the United States multiple times. Presidential candidate Donald Trump's recent comments linking immigrants to crime have further stirred the pot.

Until recently, state and local policies like the California Trust Act had pushed local-federal enforcement partnerships in a more lenient direction. State and local officials in many parts of the country were choosing to target only those immigrants with serious criminal backgrounds.

"That was all turned around by the San Francisco shooting, I think," said UC Irvine political scientist Louis DeSipio, "because that raised concerns among those…opposed to large scale unauthorized immigration, and gave them a focus for their concern that the Obama administration was becoming too generous or too inclusive of unauthorized immigrants."

Claudia Bautista with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network prepared to attend a third Sheriff's Department meeting in Duarte on Wednesday night.

“I’m personally a little bit worried," said Bautista, whose group opposes the new program as too similar to Secure Communities. "I feel like originally we had a lot of support from the immigrant community – and then the opposition started turning out.”

She's referring to opposition from immigration-restriction advocates, who are also planning to attend the Sheriff's meeting in Duarte.

Among them is Robin Hvidston, who heads an activist group called We the People Rising. She believes federal and local authorities have gone too soft on immigration.

“What this does is it makes our public safety, our communities, at risk," Hvidston said.

Hvidston said she wishes L.A. County would reinstate a voluntary federal partnership known as 287(g), which county supervisors scrapped earlier this year. That program allowed local sheriff's deputies to act as immigration agents in local jails, screening inmates for their status.

"We have enough of our own native-born criminals," Hvidston said. "We don't need to be importing criminals from other countries, and after they have been convicted and served their time, release them back onto our soil."

She characterized PEP as weak but said she'll support it "because there will still be communication between our sheriffs and immigration officials."

Enough pressure from these activists could wind up pushing county officials to agree to more stringent policies as they adopt PEP than they would have otherwise, DeSipio said.

Pro-immigrant activists like Bautista said they'll insist this doesn't happen. Another strict federal-local immigration program would only alienate immigrants from authorities, she said.

"If the immigrant community or the community at large sees...the extent of collaboration between ICE and the police department, they are automatically going to see the police department or the Sheriff's Department as an arm of ICE, and that creates more mistrust," Bautista said. 

Sheriff's officials have been hosting community input meetings to determine how best to implement the PEP program, with a report due back to the Board of Supervisors in August. The meeting on Wednesday promises a heated debate.