Six months ago, Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas adamantly opposed state legislation intended to limit what he viewed as his obligation under federal law to fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Now, though, he has issued an interim policy that ends the practice of automatically keeping everyone in jail who has been the target of a federal immigration hold. He also has called for public input for policy changes.

The turnaround has generated positive reactions among immigration activists. Jesus Guzman, a local immigration advocate who, along with other community leaders, has met with Freitas, said the new policy has the potential to change the way local law enforcement agencies relate to the immigrant community.

He said they could alter the perception among many local immigrants that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the Sheriff's Office are "one and the same."

Specifically, Freitas had opposed a state law known as the Trust Act, which prohibits police agencies from incarcerating people on federal immigration detainers unless they are charged with or convicted of a serious felony or certain misdemeanors. The Trust Act, he said, would force him either to ignore federal regulations or defy the new state law.

But even before the governor signed the bill last October, Freitas began to soften his opposition, which had included a pledge to challenge the law in court.

After the measure became law, Freitas began working with immigration advocates and others to craft a policy that implements the law's principles. The result was his interim policy and an invitation to the public to help draft final guidelines.

"We really have three choices," Freitas said this week. "We can honor none of the immigration holds or honor every single one. But the better way is to look at each community and see what works best in that community. That's going to take a lot of work."

The new law gives county sheriffs discretion over enforcement of federal detainer requests, allowing them to focus resources on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

In the view of federal authorities, immigration detainers require local jail officials to notify federal agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, that an undocumented immigrant is in custody.

Commonly known as an "ICE hold," the process often results in some undocumented immigrants who otherwise would be eligible for release being detained until ICE agents are able to pick them up.

According to the interim policy, "inmates who are eligible for release from custody shall not be held, pursuant to an immigration hold, beyond the time they would otherwise be released" unless they are charged with any one of a number of "serious felonies." These include murder, attempted murder, exploding a destructive device, first- degree robbery, kidnapping, carjacking, mayhem, rape, sodomy by force and other offenses.

The interim policy does not prohibit Sheriff's Office personnel from assisting ICE in some of the federal agency's specific investigations and in response to officer-safety issues.

The interim guidelines also seek to make broad policy changes to the way local law enforcement agencies handle undocumented immigrants.

"The immigration status of a person, and the lack of immigration documentation, should have no bearing on the manner in which Sheriff's Office personnel execute their duties," the interim policy states.

Guzman and other immigration advocates welcomed Freitas' invitation for public input into the formation of a permanent policy.

"What's going to be most helpful for all of us is when the community gets a chance to meet with Sheriff Freitas," he said.

Immigration attorney Richard Coshnear said several issues should be discussed publicly before a permanent policy is forged. Among those, Coshnear said, is that Sonoma County should consider restricting ICE holds to convicted felons, similar to Alameda County's new Trust Act policy drafted by Sheriff Greg Ahern.

"Reducing county collaboration to holds only for convicted felons would go a long way to ameliorating these problems, so Ahern's policy represents a great step forward," Coshnear said.

Coshnear said that undocumented immigrants who are convicted felons are given more due process rights than are those who have not been convicted of a serious crime but are caught up in the immigration detainer process.

A public forum on the topic is scheduled for 5:30p.m. Jan. 28 at the meeting of the Human Rights Commission, to be held in the public hearing room at the Permit and Resource Management Department, 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa.

Freitas said that a permanent policy should be drafted in the next couple of months.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.