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Santa Clara County to stop honoring immigration detainers for low-level offenders

October 18, 2011 |  3:37 pm

Santa Clara County on Tuesday voted to stop holding some suspected illegal immigrants in jail for an extra period of time so that federal immigration authorities can pick them up.  

The policy follows the county’s unsuccessful attempts last year to opt out of the controversial Secure Communities immigration enforcement program. The deportation program, which shares fingerprints collected by state and local police to help immigration authorities identify and deport tens of thousands of people each year, has been criticized for sweeping up immigrants who were arrested but not subsequently convicted of a crime or who are low-level offenders.

Santa Clara’s policy, which was approved in a 3-1 vote, says immigration detainers will only be honored for those accused of serious and violent felonies. The federal government must also provide a written agreement to reimburse all costs incurred by the county in order for any detainers to be honored.

Earlier this year, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey stopped honoring ICE detainer requests for low-level offenders. Cook County in Illinois also recently adopted a similar policy.

“We’re very discouraged that the issue keeps getting pushed down to our level, the county level, without any reform at the federal level. So our way of responding to that is, we’re not cooperating,” said Board of Supervisors President Dave Cortese. “We’re a big county. There’s a couple big counties in the state…that can push back on these kind of issues.”

“We see people pretty regularly in tears or with very emotional testimony here in this county as to what they’ve gone through,” Cortese said. “We just refuse to participate in a politics of fear like that here in this county.”

In August, the Obama administration said it would review the cases of 300,000 illegal immigrants currently in deportation proceedings to identify "low-priority" offenders -- including the elderly, crime victims and people who have lived in the U.S. since childhood -- with an eye toward allowing them to stay.

The administration has sought to counter criticism that it has been too harsh in its deportation policies. By launching the case-by-case review, officials said they were refocusing deportation efforts on felons and other "public safety threats."

On Thursday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that nearly 397,000 illegal immigrants were deported – the largest number in the agency’s history -- in fiscal 2011. Of these, more than 216,000 removed were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.

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--Paloma Esquivel

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