The Los Angeles Police Department is no longer heeding federal immigration requests to hold inmates who might be deportable past their jail terms unless a judge has vetted the request, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Monday alongside a cheering crowd of immigrant advocates.
"The federal government is in charge of enforcing federal immigration laws — not us at the local level," Garcetti said. "And that responsibility can't be forced onto local law enforcement officials who already have stretched budgets."
Los Angeles joins scores of other cities and counties that havestopped the practice, a phenomenon that analysts say could undercut the Obama administration's strategy on immigration enforcement. While the federal government has pushed for local police to help enforce immigration laws, more departments are pushing back.
Many law enforcement agencies — including the LAPD — decided to reexamine their practices after an April federal court ruling found that an Oregon county was liable for damages after holding an inmate beyond her release date so she could be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris recently advised police agencies that if California courts hold to the same reasoning as in the Oregon case, police could be found to have violated the 4th Amendment by detaining someone solely based on an immigration request. California lawmakers had already opted to limit such immigration holds last year, permitting them only for inmates charged with or convicted of serious offenses.
In reaction to the Monday announcement by Los Angeles officials, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said detainers are used to make sure "dangerous criminals" are not released into communities. ICE added that in some cases, people who were released instead of being turned over to federal agents had gone on to commit serious crimes.
"When law enforcement agencies turn criminals over to ICE rather than releasing them into the community, it enhances public safety and the safety of law enforcement," Western regional spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a written statement.
Los Angeles leaders argued that the city would be better off with its new approach. At a Monday news conference alongside Garcetti and City Atty. Mike Feuer, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck declared that their new tack would build trust in the community and encourage more people to report crimes.
"People ask 'Will this affect crime in Los Angeles?' My answer is no," Beck said. The police chief said crime had continued to fall over the last three years in Los Angeles, even as the Police Department "systematically reduced" the number of detention requests that it honored.
Federal agents check fingerprints of inmates booked by local police to see if they show up in federal immigration databases, then use the information to decide whether to ask police to hold the person for up to 48 hours. The holds are meant to give agents time to take the inmates into custody. So far this year, the LAPD had received 773 such requests and honored roughly 300, Beck told the crowd.
"The way it exists right now is, you don't even have to go to a judge," Garcetti added. "It's just an ICE officer who says, 'Hold that person' — period."
Under the new practice, police will honor the requests only if they get a warrant or a "judicial determination of probable cause," the LAPD stated in a news release Monday morning. The new approach is expected to remain in effect until "this area of the law is further clarified by the courts," its statement said.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network and other immigrant advocacy groups praised Garcetti, Beck and other city officials for the step, stating that it "moves Los Angeles another step away from the Arizona policies that threaten L.A. families and public safety." The ACLU of Southern California said Monday it had sent letters to local cities that heed the federal requests, saying it trusted that they would "follow Los Angeles' lead and end this unconstitutional practice."
Meanwhile, Jo Wideman, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization, which advocates for stricter immigration policy, called the change "ridiculous."
"By ignoring ICE detainees, people with criminal pasts will be released into the general public," Wideman said. "Criminals are going to get through the cracks."
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which has been tracking the hold issue, has tallied 157 cities and counties across the country that have stopped honoring the federal requests. Attorney Lena Graber said about 25 of those municipalities made changes to their policy before the Oregon court decision, and at least 130 have made changes in reaction to the ruling. The Southern California counties of Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino are among those where law enforcement officials have balked at the detention requests.
Garcetti said Monday that the change had already gone into effect. When it comes to the bigger question of immigration reform, he said, "We are waiting for action from Washington — but in the meantime, we are acting ourselves."