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.
"The proof is in the pudding," Christensen said. "More than 90 percent of the individuals we removed last year fit into one of the enforcement categories: convicted criminal aliens, immigration fugitives, recent border crossers and illegal re-entrants."
In 2012, ICE deported 409,849 people, with 55 percent, or 225,390, having been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. Of those criminal cases, 1,215 were convicted of homicide, 5,557 of sexual offenses, 36,166 of driving under the influence and 40,448 were convicted of drug-related crimes.
Coshnear, who is a member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, said the guidelines make a case for passage of the so-called Trust Act, a bill in the California Legislature that would limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents.
He said a simple bar fight could result in an immigration hold and deportation, even though judges often dismiss such cases.
"That's misdemeanor violence but a judge wouldn't even sentence anyone to jail for that," he said.
Under the guidelines, immigration holds should be placed on deportable immigrants only when one or more of the following conditions exist:
; The undocumented immigrant has a prior felony conviction or has been charged with a serious felony;
; has three or more misdemeanor convictions or has a prior misdemeanor conviction or is being charged with a misdemeanor and the conviction or pending charge is for a serious offense such as violence, threats, assault; sex abuse or exploitation, DUI, unlawful possession of a firearm and more.