Federal immigration authorities quietly announced a new policy just before Christmas that promises to ease conflicts with local law enforcement agencies while targeting violent criminals for deportation.
The new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency policy mirrors what was promised four years ago when the Secure Communities program was launched. ICE will review fingerprints from people arrested by local police, and it will seek custody of people believed to be in the United States illegally if they have committed a serious crime or are repeat offenders.
In practice, ICE has detained and deported thousands of people with no criminal record or who have been arrested for petty offenses such as traffic violations. In Sonoma County, 47 percent of the people turned over to immigration agents in the first year of the program hadn't been convicted of the crimes that landed them in jail.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris recently advised sheriffs and police chiefs that they aren't required to detain people who don't otherwise pose a threat to the community, regardless of any request from the federal government. Some of the state's largest law enforcement agencies already were refusing many ICE requests, saying the threat of detention and deportation was discouraging people from reporting crimes or cooperating with investigations.
Authorities in several states have tried to withdraw from the program, complaining that it had grown far beyond the original objective and was undermining local law enforcement.
Until now, ICE resisted any change. But in a statement issued Dec. 21, ICE director John Morton echoed some of the complaints made by local law enforcement agencies. He said the federal agency was "setting priorities" and aiming to "maximize public safety" by better targeting its efforts.
At the same time, ICE is ending the partnerships that empowered some local law enforcement agencies — most notoriously Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Ariz. — to enforce immigration laws.
Under the new Secure Communities policy, ICE will ask local police to hold suspected illegal immigrants for possible deportation if they have been convicted or charged with a felony. A detainer also will be issued for those who have three or more misdemeanor convictions or a single conviction or charge of misdemeanor sex offenses, drunken driving, drug trafficking or weapons possession. Anyone who re-enters the country illegally after being deported also would subject to deportation under the new policy.
Secure Communities has allowed the federal government to deport unprecedented numbers of illegal immigrants. According to new government figures, ICE deported a record 410,000 people in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Even at that rate, it would take 30 years to remove all the people believed to be in the U.S. illegally — assuming no one else sneaked across the border or stayed after their visa expired. Until then, it would only get more difficult for local law enforcement to do its job.
Congress needs to craft a comprehensive immigration reform plan. Until then, focusing enforcement efforts on violent criminals and repeat offenders will provide safer and more secure communities with fewer conflicts for local law enforcement agencies.