The Los Angeles County sheriff, who oversees the largest jail system in the United States, this week announced a reversal in policy that will allow federal immigration officials access to jails in order to look for deportable inmates.
And as localities struggle to define the parameters of their relationships with federal immigration authorities, immigration experts believe the decision may have broad implications for how others decide to handle the issue in their own backyards.
Polo Morales, political director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, considers the new policy “a huge step backwards” that will damage trust between law enforcement and the local immigrant community.
But he said due to the size of Los Angeles County and its large immigrant population, many jurisdictions have been waiting to see what policies officials there would implement.
“Los Angeles is going to be the standard across the country and will be imitated,” Mr. Morales said.
Months after Los Angeles County lawmakers voted to limit access to local jails by federal immigration officials, Sheriff Jim McDonnell this week announced participation in the Obama administration’s Priority Enforcement Program. The program, a replacement of the Secure Communities program, restricts conditions under which illegal immigrants can be deported and relies on local law enforcement to provide advance notification to federal officials before an inmate’s release from custody rather than asking local officials to hold immigrants beyond their scheduled release.
Under the new Los Angeles County policy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will be allowed to interview all inmates who are being processed for release as well as those who have committed serious and violent crimes. Agents will have full access to county jails and databases, and the sheriff’s agency will give ICE officials at least a seven-day notice of an inmate’s impending release from custody.
“Our federal and state leaders have developed approaches in regard to this important issue that are at times in tension with each other,” Sheriff McDonnell wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors outlining his plan. “It is the Department’s aim to balance and reconcile these provisions, while also keeping foremost in mind the needs, safety, and vitally important trust of our community.”
A spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization, which favors tighter restrictions on immigration, said the group supported the Secure Communities program over the Priority Enforcement Program, so Sheriff McDonnell’s policy is not strict enough for their full endorsement. But the group still sees the policy change as progress in the right direction.
“We’re encouraged by the fact there seems to be movement toward a more commonsense approach to working with ICE officials, but we will feel better when they have a tangible program in place and we can see it in action,” said spokesman Joe Guzzardi.
The action by the Los Angeles County sheriff may smooth the path for other jurisdictions that would like to cooperate with federal immigration officials under the new program but have been concerned about receiving criticism for doing so, Mr. Guzzardi said.
“If L.A. County does something, it certainly would give the other cities and counties fallback protection so they are not leading the way,” he said.
The move stands in stark contrast to San Francisco, a so-called “sanctuary city” that came under fire this summer for its lenient stance toward illegal immigrants after a Mexican national who had been deported multiple times before was charged in the high-profile murder of Kathryn Steinle.
A member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Wednesday introduced a resolution urging the city not to participate in ICE’s Priority Enforcement Program, which began in July following November’s discontinuation of Secure Communities.
Other large jurisdictions — including the District, Philadelphia and Cook County, Illinois — have rejected cooperation with ICE programs in the past, notes Shiu-Ming Cheer, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. But Los Angeles County may set the tone for how jurisdictions in California, where lawmakers adopted the legislation in 2013 shielding immigrant inmates from federal immigration agents unless they had convictions for serious crimes, implement policies under the new program.
“L.A. definitely is a large jurisdiction, so that is pretty significant,” Ms. Cheer said.