- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - More than 30 immigrants in the United States illegally were freed from jails in Phoenix over the past four days after the area’s new sheriff shortened the length of time that he’ll hold such inmates before federal authorities take custody of them.

Sheriff Paul Penzone’s office said Wednesday that the immigrants went free because federal authorities declined to pick them up after they had become eligible for release from jail on state charges.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it has since arrested five of the freed immigrants.

On Friday, Penzone announced an end to a longstanding policy by his predecessor, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, that kept immigrants locked up past their release date to give federal authorities extra time to launch deportation proceedings. Penzone said issues surrounding the policy’s constitutionality left him no choice but to change the rules.

The policy change was made as President Donald Trump has vowed to toughen immigration enforcement across the United States, including erecting a wall across the 2,000-mile southern border and making it easier to deport those who are in the country illegally.

Under Penzone’s new policy, the sheriff’s office gives federal agents five to eight hours of notice before immigrants charged with state crimes have been ordered released from jail by a court. The immigrants are set free if federal agents don’t pick them up.

“It’s their responsibility to take custody if they want to take custody,” said Mark Casey, a spokesman for Penzone’s office. “But we can no longer hold them.”

The release of the inmates harkens back to a decade ago when state and local officials in Arizona regularly criticized Immigration and Customs Enforcement for failing to respond to calls from police to pick up immigrants detained in law enforcement encounters. The criticism became more muted in recent years.

Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the federal agency will continue to seek collaboration from police agencies across Arizona to ensure that immigrants who may pose a threat to communities aren’t released to potentially commit crimes again.

She said the freed immigrants included people who had been convicted for drug offenses, extreme drunken driving and resisting a police officer.

Employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been stationed at Maricopa County’s jails for several years to check on the immigration status of people arrested on state crimes. The federal employees remain within the jails even with Penzone’s policy change.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, the county’s top prosecutor whose office defends the sheriff’s office in lawsuits, said Penzone changed the policy after a Texas judge concluded a month ago that county officials without federal authorization to enforce immigration law can’t hold people beyond the time necessary to enforce state law.

Casey said the ban on federal authorities making arrests in Phoenix’s jails is intended to protect taxpayers from legal liability. He said Penzone is discussing with federal authorities ways to lawfully exchange the inmates in the future.


Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud.

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