Immigration enforcement snares citizens in L.A. County, group says

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U.S. citizens have been illegally detained throughout Los Angeles County as a result of the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, a coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups said Wednesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others identified four U.S. citizens detained through the fingerprint-sharing program in the last few months, including three identified in November.

“Native-born American citizens are being illegally detained by the Secure Communities program right here in L.A. County,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”


The four citizens were initially detained after arrests for such things as shoplifting but were kept in custody for additional days because of requests by immigration authorities. Under Secure Communities, which began in 2008, fingerprints collected by state and local police are shared with immigration authorities to identify and deport tens of thousands of people each year.

The program was initially touted as a way to target serious convicts for deportation but has come under fire because a large percentage of immigrants caught up in the program were never convicted of a crime or are low-level offenders. There is also growing evidence that the program ensnares U.S. citizens.

Among those identified by the ACLU is Antonio Montejano, 40, who was born in and lives in Los Angeles.

Montejano was arrested and charged with petty theft in early November. The request to have him detained was placed soon after Santa Monica police arrested him, and he was held for two days until he could see a judge. He pleaded guilty to an infraction, the fine was waived and he was ordered released.

But because of the immigration hold, he was transferred to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Inmate Reception Center, where he was kept for two more nights with no bed or mattress.

“I was telling every officer I’m an American citizen,” Montejano said. “Nobody believed me.”


In an interview Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said cases of detained citizens are highly unusual.

“We have absolutely no intention of detaining U.S. citizens,” he said. “We have no authority to do so and it is not our policy.”

The agency will soon issue a revised form for people on immigration holds before they are transferred to ICE custody, he said. The form will provide detainees with phone numbers to call to raise concerns about a hold and will make it clear that such holds are only valid for 48 hours, he said.

Concerns about Secure Communities led Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa earlier this month to write to Gov. Jerry Brown asking him to suspend the state’s participation.

“Individuals who pose no discernible threat to public safety are held in our local jails at the taxpayers’ expense, with minimal to no reimbursement from ICE,” Villaraigosa wrote.

Although the exact number of U.S. citizens detained on immigration holds is not known, a study published earlier this year by researchers at UC Berkeley found that citizens made up 1.6% of Secure Communities cases analyzed. In a study published in September, a political science professor at Northwestern University identified more than 160 U.S. citizens detained or deported by immigration officials in recent years.


The ACLU and other groups called on local officials to revise policies for cooperating with immigration hold requests. Santa Clara County and Illinois’ Cook County have implemented policies limiting local cooperation with immigration holds depending on a person’s criminal history.

“Our local law enforcement does not have to be complicit in this ongoing wrong,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We in Los Angeles ought not be a part of this.”