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.