In the contentious debate over immigration reform, there is one point on which most Americans agree: Individuals with serious criminal records should be deported. Yet in deference to local and state laws limiting police cooperation in immigration cases, some law enforcement agencies have in effect stopped communicating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even in common-sense situations.
Earlier this year, San Francisco officials ignored a request from ICE to hold or at least notify the agency before releasing Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who had seven previous felony convictions and had been deported five times. Instead, they let him go in April, and last week he was charged in the fatal shooting of a woman strolling along the Embarcadero. ICE officials criticized San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi for releasing a suspect with a "lengthy criminal history," rather than turning him over for deportation. Mirkarimi said ICE knew that the city ignores federal immigration requests that aren't accompanied by a court order, but agents didn't bother to get one.
The public dispute highlights the tension between ICE officials and local authorities, who have increasingly declined or ignored requests for immigration holds on people being released from custody.
Why would law enforcement officials ignore such federal requests? Many believe it is inappropriate and counterproductive for local authorities to act as immigration agents. It undermines police relationships with immigrant communities and makes people reluctant to report crime or step forward as witnesses for fear that any contact with law enforcement could result in deportation.
We agree that police shouldn't be questioning suspects to determine their immigration status, nor should they be holding people in their jails for long periods waiting for ICE to come pick them up. But there's no reason to bar all communication with immigration officials or prevent cooperation in deporting high-priority offenders. ICE has recently revised its policy and is now asking local authorities to alert it when an "individual of interest" is to be released, rather than hold the individual. That's a good start.
Federal officials have to show law enforcement agencies that they are truly targeting high-priority offenders for deportation and that they are responsive to the concerns of those who must maintain community trust. But local authorities also should be willing to cooperate. Clear protocols are needed for transferring suspects to federal custody. It's in the interest of all residents — whether they're here legally or illegally — to ensure that serious criminals get deported.