Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has hit upon a potentially feasible plan for working with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, targeting jail inmates eligible for deportation in a way that balances conflicting desires on both sides of the immigration debate. But a letter to the Board of Supervisors outlining the plan raised questions about how much latitude ICE agents would have inside the jails, and the sheriff needs to clarify exactly what he intends.
McDonnell’s moves followed a May vote by the Board of Supervisors to end an agreement under which five sheriff’s deputies worked with a dozen ICE agents in jails to identify inmates eligible for deportation. The program engendered racial profiling, led to detentions of people without legal authority and dissuaded those here illegally from reporting crimes or stepping forward as witnesses. Further, it siphoned local resources to enforce federal immigration laws, an unwelcome blurring of roles.
But the board also directed the sheriff to take part in the new federal Priority Enforcement Program, a successor to the troubled Secure Communities program that had led to the errant detention of several thousand American citizens nationwide, and under which more than half of the deportees had minor or no criminal records. The PEP system, which went into effect this summer, is supposed to target terrorists, violent criminals, gang members and recent border crossers.
McDonnell said his department will use as its guide the California Trust Act, which bars local authorities from holding inmates at ICE’s request unless the inmate has been convicted of a serious or violent crime. On top of that, McDonnell said he would not hold any inmate beyond the normal release time based solely on an ICE request, reflecting court rulings that police cannot continue to jail someone once a sentence is served. In a welcome attempt at transparency, the department will conduct monthly audits to ensure only Trust Act-qualified inmates are handed over to ICE.
The problem is that the sheriff and his department issued contradictory statements about what ICE agents could do in the jails. McDonnell told the supervisors that ICE agents would have “full access” to inmates in the jails and the inmate release area, and to the department’s databases — an objectionable blurring of jurisdictions. The department, on the other hand, said ICE agents were “only allowed to interview specific inmates who have a high likelihood of being in the United States illegally, meet a PEP priority category, and [have] a qualifying conviction under the California Trust Act.” That is a more reasonable approach, as is McDonnell’s plan to alert ICE within seven days of the scheduled release of a inmate meeting those criteria.
The sheriff needs to make clear how this new relationship with ICE will work, and assure the public that this does not signal backsliding into a too-cozy relationship with ICE.