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Local police can decide whether to hold illegal immigrants, state attorney general says

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris on Tuesday told local law enforcement agencies that they were not obligated to comply with a controversial federal program launched in 2008 with the goal of deporting illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

It was Harris' first public assessment of Secure Communities, under which all arrestees' fingerprints are sent to federal immigration officials, who then may ask police departments to hold suspected illegal immigrants so deportation proceedings can begin.

While the intent may have been to improve public safety, Harris said that a review of data from March through June of this year showed that 28% of those targeted for deportation in California as a result were not criminals. Those numbers, she noted, changed little since Immigration and Customs Enforcement pledged a year earlier that the program would be reformed to better target the most serious criminals.

"Secure Communities has not held up to what it aspired to be," Harris said. The law enforcement bulletin she issued Tuesday stated that "immigration detainer requests are not mandatory, and each agency may make its own decision" about whether to honor them.

Some elected officials and local law enforcement agencies have complained that -- in addition to pulling in those arrested for minor offenses -- Secure Communities had made undocumented immigrants fearful of cooperating with police, even when they themselves were the victims.

On Tuesday, immigrant-rights advocates applauded Harris' announcement.

This "should eliminate the confusion among some sheriffs about the legal force of detainers," said Reshma Shamasunder, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. "The only logical next step is a strong, statewide standard that limits these burdensome requests."

One attempt by legislators to do just that unraveled in October with Gov. Jerry Brown's veto of the Trust Act, a proposed law that would have forbid police departments from honoring federal detainer requests except in cases of serious or violent crime.

The bill was authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who reintroduced a modified version Monday.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is among those who have argued that compliance with Secure Communities was mandatory. Some law enforcement agencies, including the San Francisco Sheriff's Department and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, have gone in the other direction and declined to comply with requests to hold non-serious offenders.

On Tuesday, L.A. sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said that Harris' opinion was welcome guidance that may offer sheriffs more flexibility in how they deal with immigration detainees.

"The attorney general's opinion is going to be taken very seriously," Whitmore said. "The sheriff applauds it and is grateful for it." Baca,  he added, has been working with the attorney general and the governor on the issue.

In a written response to Harris' announcement, a spokeswoman for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency's top priorities were the deportation of criminals, recent border crossers and repeat violators of immigration law.

"The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities," the statement said.

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--Lee Romney in San Francisco and Cindy Chang in Los Angeles

Photo: California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris discusses Secure Communities program during a press conference at the State of California building in San Francisco. Jeff Chiu/ Associated Press

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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