A new state law that seeks to limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents may be having a significant impact in Sonoma County.
From Jan. 1 to Jan. 28, the number of inmate transfers from the jail to federal immigration custody were down 64 percent compared to the same period last year, according to Sheriff Steve Freitas.
Another result of enforcing what's known as the Trust Act, Freitas said, is his office's rejection of 28 of the 38 federal holds that immigration agents have requested over the same period. Before the Trust Act was passed, jail staff honored every immigration hold federal agents requested, he said.
If similar numbers surface in the coming months, the sheriff's new Trust Act policies could represent a big blow to a controversial federal immigration program that trolls for undocumented immigrants in county jails.
Local immigration advocates have welcomed the change and are praising the Sheriff's Office's immediate efforts to implement the new California law.
"I think that's wonderful," said Santa Rosa immigration attorney and advocate Richard Coshnear on the reduction in immigration holds. "It means that 74 percent of the families will not be split apart as a result of these changes."
Freitas cautioned that the figures represent only a month's worth of data and said it was too early to tell whether it constitutes a trend. The sheriff said he'll be able to better gauge the impact of the new policy "three or four months from now."
Freitas is working with the immigrant community to craft a permanent local policy that adheres to the new law. The guidance in place now is an interim policy.
The shift is a significant one for Freitas, who last year opposed the Trust Act on the grounds that it conflicted with some legal interpretations of the federal government's immigration hold policy. Freitas said then he feared it would force him to choose between violating state or federal statutes.
But Freitas withdrew his opposition to the Trust Act about month before Gov. Jerry Brown signed it in early October. Freitas says matter-of-factly that the Trust Act is the law of California, and as a state "constitutional officer" he must adhere to it.
"It's not really a change, it's following the law like I'm supposed to," he said.
The Trust Act seeks to resolve what critics, including immigrant advocates, say is a massive overreach in a federal program known as Secure Communities.
It was meant to target undocumented immigrants who had committed serious and violent crimes by placing federal holds on them as they passed through local jails. The detentions, tracked by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are known as "ICE holds."
But such holds also resulted in the detention of countless immigrants who were in jail only on minor offenses such as traffic violations. In some cases, legal immigrants and even U.S. citizens have been put on ICE holds.
The Trust Act gives county sheriffs discretion over which federal detainer requests to honor, allowing them to focus resources on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.
None of the 28 ICE holds Freitas' office rejected in January involved people who were charged with or convicted of violent or serious felonies.
"The Trust Act does not apply to serious or violent felons," Freitas said. "Serious and violent felons are still being held on ICE detainers."