Local immigration advocates pan new federal policy as toothless

Sonoma County immigration advocates say the Obama administration's new guidelines intended to limit the incarceration of certain non-criminal undocumented immigrants are toothless and merely symbolic.

The new rules seek to refocus and reinforce Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts on detaining and deporting serious and violent criminals. But immigration advocates say the policy has no real impact and doesn't prevent the agency from deporting illegal immigrants who don't meet the guidelines.

ICE officials reject the claims, citing the most recent deportation data that they say shows that the agency is focusing more on "criminal aliens."

The new guidelines come after years of criticism from immigration advocates that ICE policies, notably its jail-based Secure Communities program, cast too broad a net and have resulted in the deportation of undocumented immigrants with minor or no criminal records.

"There is no level of accountability in the guidelines," said Jesus Guzman, head of the immigration task force at the North Bay Organizing Project. "We've known for some time there is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the leadership and the boots on the ground of what's being implemented."

Santa Rosa immigration attorney and advocate Richard Coshnear said the new policy, as explained in a Dec. 21 memorandum from ICE director John Morton, merely states that ICE agents "should" focus on violent or criminal undocumented immigrants.

ICE's Secure Communities became tangled in controversy after the agency's records showed that a significant number of those being detained were "non-criminals."

During the program's first year of operation in Sonoma County, from March 2, 2010, to Feb. 28, 2011, local jail officials handed over 433 "non-criminal" immigrants to ICE, or 47 percent of the 921 immigrants released to federal immigration officials. An addituional 225 immigrants were convicted of petty offenses.

But much has changed, said Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

Christensen said that during fiscal year 2008, when Secure Communities was first launched, "only 30 percent of the people we removed were convicted aliens." In fiscal year 2012, she said, that share grew to 55 percent.

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