Months after the Board of Supervisors moved to limit the practice, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has authorized federal agents to operate inside jails to look for deportable inmates, saying that the new procedures "appropriately balance" public safety needs and the concerns of immigrant communities.
Some experts praised McDonnell's new policy, which allows immigration agents to target serious or violent criminals who are about to be released. But immigrant rights advocates accused him of bowing to political pressure escalated by the fatal shooting in July of a woman in San Francisco — allegedly by a man who was in the country illegally and had recently been released from local custody.
"It appears the 'Trump Effect' is now having an impact on Los Angeles County policy," said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who said the new policy "appears politically motivated and impacted by sensationalized tragedy."
McDonnell outlined the policy in a letter to the board made public Tuesday.
It says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents "will be allowed access to all inmates who are being released" from jail, but also that agents will be allowed to interview only those who have been convicted of serious crimes and are not protected by the California Trust Act.
That 2013 law shields immigrant inmates from federal immigration agents unless they have been convicted of serious crimes, such as burglary, assault, sexual abuse or felony DUI.
Immigrant advocates have long complained that cooperation between local authorities and immigration agents can lead to racial profiling and hampers crime-fighting by causing people who are in the country illegally to shy away from talking to police — a point seconded by many in law enforcement.
The July 1 shooting death of Kathryn Steinle thrust the issue of cooperation into the national spotlight, with figures as varied as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump calling for cities to work closely with ICE.
The new procedures in Los Angeles stand in contrast to those in San Francisco, where the sheriff has banned all collaboration with immigration officials except when federal authorities have a court order or a warrant.
Los Angeles' new policy was drafted after three community meetings and many private meetings with advocates, immigration officials and other area law enforcement agencies.
While immigrant advocates are planning a protest Thursday at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, groups that advocate stricter immigration enforcement called the new policy a positive development.
Robin Hvidston of the advocacy group We the People Rising said ICE should be able to interview and apprehend all inmates in Los Angeles jails who may be in the country illegally, not only those convicted of certain crimes. Still, Hvidston said, "this is a step in the right direction toward protecting the community and serving the county."
Under the new policy, inmates will be advised of their right to consult an immigration attorney before they are turned over to ICE — something advocates had asked for during negotiations with sheriff's officials.
But immigrant advocates say the new policy is out of step with a board decision earlier this year to end a contract with ICE that stationed agents in the jails and trained jail deputies to identify potentially deportable inmates.
Under that program, tens of thousands of inmates were interviewed and referred to ICE. During a four-month period that began in the fall of 2013, 1,018 inmates were interviewed by deputies and 271 were referred to ICE, according to Sheriff's Department statistics.
The Board of Supervisors voted to end that program, known as 287(g), on a 3-2 vote in May after years of pressure from advocates who claimed that it led to racial profiling.
But the same day the board ended that contract, it voted 4-1 to instruct the Sheriff's Department to continue to cooperate with ICE in other ways, including a new federal initiative called the Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP.
Under that program, immigration agents check the fingerprints of all inmates booked into local jails to determine whether they are in the country illegally. ICE agents then ask jail officials to notify them when deportable inmates are being released.
At least one supervisor who voted in favor of cooperating with the Priority Enforcement Program said she was concerned by language in McDonnell's letter that appears to allow ICE agents unfettered access to the jails, as under 287(g).
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who led the effort to get rid of 287(g), said she supports agents having access to jails, but with strict limits.
"There is a big difference between allowing limited interviews and allowing the full, unfettered access that existed before," Solis said. "We have insisted that the sheriff allow such interviews only after ICE has determined — and the sheriff has verified — that these inmates have been convicted of crimes that truly make them a danger to public safety."
Solis added that she hoped her concern was simply "a result of unclear language in the sheriff's letter."
Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said Wednesday that "the sheriff is in ongoing discussions with the supervisors" about the policy, but that "his letter remains the most accurate statement of the sheriff's position on PEP implementation."
ICE and sheriff's officials say it is important that agents are given access to jails to conduct in-person interviews because fingerprint matching fails to identify inmates who do not have prior immigration-related offenses.
David Martin, a law professor who served as deputy general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, said the new policy struck a middle ground between competing interests.
Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, who has studied Los Angeles' relationship with ICE, said, "It's hard to say what the outcome of the policy is going to be, but this looks like a very deliberate — and possibly thoughtful — approach."
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