More than a dozen California counties have stopped honoring requests from immigration agents to hold potentially deportable inmates beyond the length of their jail terms, saying the practice may expose local sheriffs to liability.
In recent weeks, officials in counties including Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino have stopped complying with so-called ICE detainers, citing a federal court ruling in April that found an Oregon county liable for damages after it held an inmate beyond her release date so she could be transferred into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
The California counties are among about 100 municipalities across the country that have stopped the practice since the ruling, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocacy group that is tracking the issue.
Analysts say the changes could impair President Obama's current immigration enforcement strategy, which relies on collaboration between local law enforcement authorities and federal agents.
"It's very significant because it represents a reduction of the involvement of local police in federal immigration enforcement," said Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at UCLA. He said the Oregon court ruling had changed the long-running debate over ICE detainers.
"It's not just political anymore," Motomura said. "It's about liability."
He and others said the decision of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to stop complying with the requests was especially noteworthy, given the large number of people apprehended via ICE detainers in L.A. County jails each day. The Los Angeles Police Department is reviewing the Oregon case in weighing similar changes to its detainer policy, said Assistant Chief Michel Moore, who oversees the city jails.
Jo Wideman, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization, which advocates for stricter immigration policies, said her group plans to fight the changes. "Criminals who should not even be here to begin with should not be released onto our streets," Wideman said.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the agency hopes local jurisdictions continue to comply with detainers, which she described as an essential tool in capturing immigrants who pose a public safety risk.
"When law enforcement agencies remand criminals to ICE custody rather than releasing them into the community, it helps contribute to public safety and the safety of law enforcement," Kice said.
Federal statistics show that more than 33,000 people who were identified by immigration authorities while in custody in L.A. County have been deported since August 2009, when the county first signed on to a federal program known as Secure Communities.
Under the program, fingerprints of inmates booked by local law enforcement authorities are checked against federal immigration databases. ICE agents use the information to decide whether to ask police to hold the inmates for up to 48 hours to give ICE time to take them into custody.
Immigrant rights advocates have pushed back against detainers with protests and litigation in recent years, saying they are unconstitutional and have eroded trust in police among immigrant communities. Last fall, advocates won a major victory when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Trust Act, which instructs local officials to honor ICE detainers only in cases when inmates have been charged with or convicted of a serious offense.
The recent changes go beyond that, with counties deciding to stop honoring ICE detainers altogether.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said he made the decision last week after consulting with county attorneys about the Oregon lawsuit.
In that case, an immigrant from Mexico named Maria Miranda Olivares completed a jail sentence for violating a restraining order but was kept behind bars for an additional 19 hours on a federal hold at the request of immigration agents, who eventually took her into custody.
Lawyers for the county argued in a lawsuit brought by Miranda that the sheriff was required to hold her. The judge disagreed, saying ICE detainers are not mandatory and did not demonstrate probable cause for Miranda to be held. The judge said the county was liable for damages.
Gore said his agency felt it was too risky to continue holding inmates for ICE. Instead he said his agency will notify federal agents when inmates who have been flagged for potential immigration violations are released.
"If they want them, they can come and get them," Gore said. "We don't have to hold them for 48 hours."
Sheriffs from several counties, including Orange and Kern, say they will not change their policies relating to ICE detainers.
Lt. Jeff Hallock, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, said officials in his agency reviewed the federal court decision and decided their current policy was appropriate. He said Orange County operates in compliance with the Trust Act.