A change in Los Angeles County elected leadership last year paved the way for the end of a controversial collaboration between sheriff's deputies and federal immigration officials in the county jails.
The replacement of termed-out Supervisor Gloria Molina with former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis appears to have provided the political shift needed to end the 287(g) program. Under the program, jail staff and immigration agents screen inmates convicted of certain crimes to determine whether they are eligible for deportation.
Molina was the first Latina to sit on the county board and represented downtown Los Angeles and the eastern stretches of the county for more than 20 years. Although she came in with left-leaning credentials, Molina proved hawkish on criminal justice and fiscal issues, often allying with the two Republicans on the board.
She voted against implementing the 287(g) program in 2005 when the county first adopted it. But she cast the swing vote in October to extend the county's partnership with federal immigration authorities in the jails.
Solis took office in December, representing a Latino-majority Eastside district, bringing with her a promise to be an advocate for immigrant rights.
Then last week, Solis, along with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, proposed to immediately end the county's agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Newly installed Supervisor Sheila Kuehl also said she supports the move, providing the third vote needed for it to pass. A vote is expected Tuesday.
The three supervisors make up a new majority on a variety of issues that are reshaping county government. They have united in a push to increase the minimum wage in unincorporated areas, restructure key county departments and beef up child welfare services. Observers are also waiting to see whether they will be more open to union demands than the old board was.
"It's a more progressive board politically," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. "It's not the same board that it had been for years and years, which was dominated by conservative to moderate political tendencies."
Although Molina was an advocate for immigrants on some issues, Regalado said she was "all over the board ideologically." He predicted Solis' voting patterns will be more predictable. "She will be kind of a bedrock for immigrants' rights," he said. "She has been throughout her political career."
Molina said in an interview Monday that she had been a "reluctant supporter" of 287(g), but stands behind the program in its current form, under which immigrants who have been convicted only of felonies are supposed to be referred to immigration officials. She said allegations from critics that the program had ensnared people charged with only minor crimes were overblown.
"It's really actually not bad to have convicted felons who are undocumented deported," Molina said. "When we're fighting for the rights of immigrants, that's not the kind of immigrant we want to protect."
Solis said in a statement that the partnership with immigration officials "has greatly eroded the community's trust in local law enforcement by muddying the distinction between the local police agencies and federal immigration enforcement agencies."
"Victims or witnesses are less willing to come forward when they fear that any contact with law enforcement could lead to deportation," she said.
Solis, the daughter of working-class immigrant parents in the San Gabriel Valley, rose from local office to serve in the state Legislature and in Congress. Immigration has long been a key issue for Solis, ranging from farmworker rights to the blight of Thai immigrants working in slave-like conditions in the garment industry. As President Obama's secretary of labor, she became the first Latina to serve in a Cabinet position.
Under the 287(g) agreement, federal immigration agents work daily inside the Twin Towers jail alongside jail employees trained by ICE. Each month, they interview dozens of inmates about their immigration status. Those who they determine to be deportable may be apprehended by waiting ICE agents once they are released from the jail.
Last year, jail staff screened more than 13,000 inmates under the program and about 300 were ultimately taken into custody by immigration agents, according to sheriff's officials.
While the supervisors appear poised to end the 287(g) contract, a majority of them also appear ready to back a new jail program being rolled out by the immigration agency.
The Priority Enforcement Program, which may be debuted as early as this week, will probably allow federal agents to cross-check the fingerprints of every person booked into a local jail against an immigration database. ICE will flag those it believes are deportable, and ask jail officials to notify the agency when the inmate is being released.
A proposal slated for a vote Tuesday would ask Sheriff Jim McDonnell to cooperate with the program but create procedures to limit when jail employees can notify immigration officials about an inmate's release. Certain inmates in the country illegally might be protected, including those who have past criminal histories but who have not committed a serious crime in many years.
Immigrant advocates have called on L.A. officials not to cooperate with the new program. On Monday, demonstrators rallied outside of the county's headquarters waving a banner that said, "ICE Out of L.A."
"What we want is no collaboration at all," said protester Edna Monroy, 26.
Kuehl, the one member of the board who said she opposes the new program, said she believes "that local law enforcement needs to be divorced from federal immigration enforcement."
She said that if her colleagues pass the motion to support the new program, "it would be very difficult to say that there's some kind
of leftward bent" on the board.
The two remaining conservative board members, Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe, oppose rolling back the jails' involvement with immigration officials.
Anna Mouradian, justice deputy to Antonovich, noted that the number of inmates referred to ICE under 287(g) had already decreased as a result of changes in state law. But she said it would be difficult to predict the public safety effects of the program's end.
"When you have individuals who are identified through the 287(g) program and deported, then you have effectively prevented crimes from occurring that you can't quantify," she said. "Is it going to make a big difference in public safety? That's a gamble. That's a gamble that Supervisor Antonovich is not willing to take."