California police see dangers in Trump's illegal immigration crackdown

President Trump’s plan to enlist local police and sheriff’s departments in immigration enforcement has set the stage for a pitched battle with California officials who have long prioritized building ties with immigrant communities.

Trump’s plan, which was issued Wednesday as part of a pair of executive orders, seeks to broaden the reach of federal immigration authorities into county jails.

It also calls for empowering police officers and deputies to act as immigration enforcers, leaving open the possibility that they would be required to inquire about the immigration status of the people they encounter on the streets.

Such a regime could conflict with the Los Angeles Police Department’s decades-old policy that prohibits officers from initiating contact with a person solely to ask about whether he or she is in the country legally.

Local governments that defy the Trump administration’s immigration policies by acting as “sanctuary cities” could be denied federal funding, one of the executive orders states.

More than 400 jurisdictions across the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and about 40 others in California, have such policies protecting immigrants.

California state officials have signaled that they will put up a fight. The California Legislature has selected former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to serve as outside counsel on the state’s legal strategy for dealing with the incoming administration.

The state’s new attorney general, former congressman Xavier Becerra, said at his swearing-in on Tuesday that he will form a united front with officials from other states to defend their policies against any federal challenges.

Hours after Trump signed the executive orders, Los Angeles leaders suggested they would mount a legal challenge if funding is taken away.

Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters Wednesday that he doesn’t believe the federal government can cut off funding to Los Angeles, citing the 10th Amendment, which addresses the powers of state and federal governments. 

“We feel very strong the legal case is clear,” Garcetti said.

The particulars of Trump’s orders are still being dissected by Los Angeles leaders. But City Council President Herb Wesson told reporters that “the city is going to continue to operate the way it operates.”

Los Angeles will receive about $500 million this fiscal year from the federal government to pay for an array of services, including port security, anti-gang programs and services for senior citizens. 

That doesn’t include federal funding that flows to entities such as the Los Angeles Unified School District or Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“It would be folly for any administration to take away funds to protect America’s port,” Garcetti said. “Or take away vouchers that help get veterans who have fought for our country off the street.”

Shortly after Trump’s election, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced that he would not work with federal authorities on deportation efforts.

“We have built relationships by effective law enforcement that doesn’t focus on where a person was born or the color of their skin. And we don’t intend to change that,” Beck said Wednesday.

Trump’s plan for local jails involves reinstating a program called Secure Communities, which asks jail officials to hand inmates over to federal immigration authorities up to 48 hours past when the inmate would otherwise have been released. Federal authorities can ask for inmates who have committed only immigration violations, in addition to those with serious criminal records.

In 2013, California passed the Trust Act, which limited jail officials’ ability to cooperate with federal immigration requests to only those inmates who have been convicted of “serious” or “violent” crimes.

In 2014, after a federal court held an Oregon county liable for damages for holding an inmate beyond her release date at the request of immigration authorities, hundreds of cities and counties around the country stopped complying with many immigration hold requests.

Later that year, then-President Obama ended the Secure Communities program, creating a new jail program that focused only on inmates convicted of “significant” criminal offenses or who posed a danger to public safety.

The return of Secure Communities could mean that California sheriffs would have to choose between state law and federal law.

Los Angeles and Orange County sheriff’s officials said Wednesday that the president’s executive order likely won’t have any immediate impact on how they do business.

Federal immigration agents are inside the Los Angeles County jails “almost on a daily basis,” said Assistant Sheriff Kelly Harrington, head of the Sheriff’s Department’s custody division, speaking to the county Board of Supervisors earlier this month.

If the agents want access to an inmate, sheriff’s officials vet the name to ensure that the person has been charged or convicted of a serious or violent crime, in accordance with the Trust Act, Harrington said.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement Wednesday that Trump’s order would not “change the mission” of his department, which he said would continue to follow the Trust Act and other state immigration law.

“Our department policy clearly states that our deputies do not ask for one’s immigration status,” he said. “Immigration enforcement remains a federal responsibility.”

At the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, officials are conferring with attorneys to figure out the new landscape.

“What the future looks like a few weeks out, we will talk to county counsel about. But today, nothing is changing,” said Lt. Mark Stichter, public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Neither the Los Angeles nor Orange County sheriff’s departments permit their deputies to initiate contact with anyone solely on the basis of a suspected immigration violation. Deputies cannot question a suspect about immigration status even if the person was stopped for another reason, officials from both agencies said.

“We do not conduct or participate in any immigration enforcement,” Stichter said.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, a critic of the Trust Act who once vowed to defy the law, said in an interview Wednesday that he was still reviewing the administration’s orders and that it would take some time to sort out the implications. But he is concerned about a possible clash between the state and federal governments over immigration enforcement.  

When state and federal laws aren’t in sync, he said, law enforcement is “in the crosshairs.”

“We’re trying to avoid being in the middle,” he said.

Youngblood, who worked around limits on immigration holds by letting federal immigration agents into his jails and giving them access to arrest records, said his deputies are not immigration agents and “are not in the business of immigration.” They do not ask about immigration status after an arrest.

Hiroshi Motomura, an expert in immigration law at UCLA, said that despite the tough rhetoric in Wednesday’s White House announcement, there are constitutional and other legal limits on how much the federal government can punish states and cities that don’t go along with its priorities.

“The federal government can’t take over state and local governments,” Motomura said. “You have a lot of federal vehicles to facilitate cooperation by state and local governments. But there are limits on the federal government’s ability to force cooperation.”

Chris Newman, an attorney for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, was involved in legal challenges to oppose Secure Communities under the Obama administration.

He said the policies announced by Trump sounded “eerily similar” to those enacted in the first years of Obama’s presidency. Those policies, he said, led to a backlash in many communities in California, which eventually adopted the Trust Act.

Newman predicts a similar backlash in response to Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

“The idea of a return to Secure Communities combined with Trump’s racist rhetoric will likely inspire more sanctuary policies,” he said.

Times staff writers Dakota Smith and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

cindy.chang@latimes.com

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

maya.lau@latimes.com

For more Southern California news, follow us on Twitter: @cindychangLA, @palomaesquivel and @mayalau

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