AP Exclusive: California immigration holds drop

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SAN DIEGO (AP) - Far fewer immigrants arrested by California law enforcement are being turned over to federal authorities for deportation since a new state law went into effect in January.

The law was pushed by immigrant advocates and directs law enforcement agencies to more quickly release those without serious criminal records rather than hold them so federal officials can take them into custody for deportation proceedings.

Already, according to a review by The Associated Press, the new law appears to be having a big impact in slowing deportations at a time when President Barack Obama is looking to ease immigration enforcement policies nationwide and appease immigrant advocates who say his administration has been too tough.

Until now, California has accounted for a third of deportations under U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Secure Communities program, which screens the fingerprints of arrestees for potential immigration violations.

While it was expected the state law known as the Trust Act would reduce the number of people held for possible deportation, it wasn’t clear how significant the drop would be.

Since sheriff’s departments are responsible for most bookings, the AP surveyed those agencies in 23 counties responsible for most of California’s deportations under the program.

Not all supplied data for the first two months of this year, but among the 15 that did, there was a 44 percent drop, from 2,984 people to 1,660. Those 15 counties included four of the five largest in the state - Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino. Orange County could not provide 2013 data because officials do not keep paperwork on this issue for more than a year.

“It suggests that before the Trust Act went into effect, at least in California, Secure Communities was having a most significant impact on relatively minor criminal offenders, as opposed to the gang bangers the president was saying were being targeted,” said Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis school of law and an immigration law expert.

While most counties appear to be complying with the law, some sheriffs’ departments do not appear to have adopted policies to put it into action when the year began.

Angela Chan, senior staff attorney at San Francisco-based civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said advocates have received reports of about a dozen instances where people should have been released under the new law but weren’t.

“There is inconsistency, and that is something we’re working on,” she said. “This is a law they have to follow.”

Secure Communities has led to more than 300,000 deportations since October 2008. The program has immigration agents screen the fingerprints of arrestees and ask local law enforcement to hold for 48 hours those they want to deport until they can pick them up and take them to a detention facility.

Touted by supporters as a way to identify and deport those who have committed serious crimes, the program also has led to people with relatively minor infractions being sent back to their home countries.

Under the Trust Act, immigrants facing trial on serious criminal charges or with serious criminal records can be held on immigration grounds, but those charged with lesser crimes are released on bail or after serving time, just like Americans.

The law specifies which crimes are considered serious so that wherever someone is arrested the treatment is supposed to be largely the same, though some counties may choose not to honor immigration holds, such as Santa Clara.

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