Local law enforcement can decide if they want to hold illegal immigrants on behalf of the federal government, California Attorney General Kamala Harris said Tuesday.
At question is Secure Communities, an Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE, program launched more than two years ago in the Sonoma County Jail and as far back as 2008 elsewhere.
The program uploads fingerprints and other biometric data taken when people are booked into local jails and checks them against vast criminal and immigration databases.
ICE agents may then ask jails to hold a person for 48 hours beyond the time they are supposed to be released, and federal authorities have insisted jails must honor their requests.
But Harris said Tuesday that the system is flawed and puts undue strain on local agencies already strapped for funds, staff and space.
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said it's too soon to decide whether he will make any changes to how they handle federal requests for what's commonly called an “immigration hold.”
“The federal government has said consistently that it is mandatory,” Freitas said. “Some of the other language says differently. It's a very confusing issue.”
When the program launched locally in March 2010, then-Sheriff Bill Cogbill said he had no choice but to participate in the program.
Harris outlined her analysis in a bulletin sent Tuesday to agencies across the state. Freitas said he asked county counsel to review the memo and take another look at federal instructions.
“They're going to need to do a legal analysis because the federal government doesn't agree with her,” Freitas said of the attorney general's analysis.
When ICE began rolling out Secure Communities in local jails in 2008, critics said local agencies shouldn't be required to enforce federal immigration laws.
Immigrant advocates and some in law enforcement blasted the program out of concern it would prevent immigrants, fearing deportation, from reporting crimes.