The move by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week to withdraw from a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement program should resolve what had become an unwelcome blurring of the roles played by sheriff's deputies at county jails and immigration agents. But in a related decision, the board voted to continue some cooperation with ICE in identifying deportable immigrants being held in the jails. It remains to be seen whether that is a wise decision.
Under an agreement the supervisors approved in 2005 and reauthorized last October, the Sheriff's Department participated in ICE's 287(g) program, named after the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows local law enforcement officials to perform some of the duties of immigration officers. Five specially trained sheriff's deputies worked with a dozen federal agents interviewing and investigating inmates to determine their immigration status. Human rights groups have long contended that the program engendered racial profiling, and we dislike using local law enforcement resources to do ICE's work.
In practice, it also led to civil liberties violations, such as detaining people without legal authority, and jeopardized public safety as fear of deportation discouraged people from reporting crimes or stepping forward as witnesses. The supervisors said ending the program "will protect the County from future liability, will free up much needed County resources and will improve the trust between local law enforcement and the community."
The supervisors cited those concerns before voting 3 to 2 to withdraw from the 287(g) program. But then they voted 4 to 1 (Sheila Kuehl dissented) to take part in ICE's forthcoming Priority Enforcement Program, the successor to the poorly executed Secure Communities, under which several thousand legal citizens nationwide were detained and more than half of the deportees had minor or no criminal records. Under PEP, the Sheriff's Department will send inmates' fingerprints to ICE to determine who may be deportable under President Obama's recent directive prioritizing terrorists, violent criminals, gang members and recent border crossers. If ICE expresses interest in an inmate, the Sheriff's Department will notify the agency when that person is scheduled for release from jail, and available for immigration detention.
The board directed the sheriff to report back in 90 days on how that program will be implemented while safeguarding the rights of all. That's a prudent approach. When PEP was announced last fall, we raised concerns that it could be susceptible to abuse, and we continue to reserve judgment until the program and its effects become clearer.