SAN FRANCISCO — If the San Francisco sheriff's plan becomes reality, illegal immigrants arrested for petty crimes won't be held in jail longer than necessary, even if federal immigration agents may want them detained for possible deportation.
Instead, starting Wednesday, deputies will treat those eligible for release just like U.S. citizens: They will be cited to appear in court.
City officials, however, aren't so sure about Sheriff Mike Hennessey's plan.
The new policy is his attempt to comply with a city law that prevents police from aiding federal authorities in non-felony crimes and a U.S. law that requires authorities to share fingerprints with immigration agents.
"I'm in a position where I'm trying to enforce a local law as well as not violate the federal law and this is the 'in-between,' " he said. "It's a difficult area to tread on because emotions run very high here in California and throughout the country on immigration issues."
Under Sheriff Hennessey's policy, illegal immigrants who commit misdemeanors, such as disorderly conduct, trespassing or shoplifting, will not be held while the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) checks their status through a fingerprinting monitoring program.
He said the change is meant to coincide with the city's "Sanctuary City" law, which aims to provide refuge for illegal immigrants.
Mayor Ed Lee's office did not receive advance notice of the policy change, said Christine Falvey, Mr. Lee's press secretary.
"We have reached out to federal authorities to determine if this new policy contradicts federal law," she said. "We are awaiting clarification."
The sheriff's new policy comes as the California Assembly on Thursday approved a bill to revise the state's agreement on using the federal Secure Communities program. The measure, which would allow counties to opt out, now moves to the state Senate.
San Francisco and nearby Santa Clara county have sought permission from the federal government to opt out of Secure Communities.
Sheriff Hennessey said his policy is similar to San Miguel and Taos counties in New Mexico. He said San Francisco's policy will protect public safety because immigrants would be more willing to report crimes if they didn't fear arrest and possible deportation.
ICE Spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Sheriff Hennessey's decision is "unfortunate." In San Francisco County, ICE has taken custody of 731 deportable immigrants since Secure Communities began in June 2010, Miss Kice said.
Nearly 40 percent had prior criminal convictions for felonies or multiple misdemeanors, she added.
Angela Chan, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus and a San Francisco Police Commission member, said 68 percent of the people deported under the Secure Communities program in California did not commit serious crimes.
"That puts a lot of people at risk," she said. "That's why there's such uproar over this program."
Sheriff Hennessey said he learned that keeping immigrants with ICE detainers behind bars is a courtesy and not mandatory after meeting with Secure Communities director David Venturella late last year.
Sheriff Hennessey's move is drawing some sharp criticism.
"The borders will never be secure as long as places like San Francisco lay out the welcome mat," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group that is suing the city over similar immigration issues.
"These policies put illegal immigrants above the law," Mr. Fitton said.