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The net cast for illegal immigrants in Sonoma County shrank dramatically in the past year — with far fewer people turned over to the federal government for being in the country without permission.

The reasons for that change are hard to pinpoint. But it corresponds chronologically to a decision that local law enforcement agencies — urged on by advocates for illegal immigrants' rights — made last year to accept Mexican consular cards as valid identification.

That meant officers in the field who were confident of the identity of a person they contacted could check them against records, and did not always have to take that person to jail to find out if they were wanted or otherwise posed a threat.

Since the new policy took effect, local authorities have turned over just under half as many people as they previously did to Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the federal agency's Secure Communities program, according to data the agency provided.

The Secure Communities program is promoted as a way to identify, capture and deport dangerous illegal immigrants. It requires the Sheriff's Office to send to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the fingerprints and other biometric data of all people booked at the Sonoma County Jail.

ICE places those flagged for immigration violations on hold, regardless of the seriousness of their alleged offense and the outcome of their case.

In its first year of operation in Sonoma County, from March 2010 to March 2011, the program forwarded data from 20,783 inmates to ICE. In that period, illegal immigrants were turned over to ICE at a rate of 78 a month.

In the 11-month period ending Aug. 31, 2012, the most recent period for which such data is available, the jail submitted identifying information for 18,264 inmates to ICE, at a rate that was 4 percent lower than in the program's first year.

But in that period, the number of people turned over to the government plummeted to an average of 44 people a month, a drop of 47 percent, according to ICE data obtained by The Press Democrat.

"It's alarming," said Steve Giraud of Petaluma, director of the NorCal Chapter of the Border Patrol Auxiliary, a proponent of tighter enforcement of immigration laws.

"That means the individuals are still in this county, using or abusing public aid and displacing American workers," he said.

But the drop has delighted advocates who had argued that too many people were being forced into deportation proceedings who didn't deserve to be.

"It certainly is welcome news; the majority of those being turned over to ICE don't pose a threat to our community," said Jesus Guzman, who heads the immigration task force at the North Bay Organizing Project, a coalition of immigration, labor, conservation and bicycle activists.

On Oct. 23, 2011, the Sheriff's Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department announced they would begin accepting consular cards — also known as matricula consulars — as valid identification, which had been the goal of a yearlong Organizing Project campaign.

The card is a form of official registration for Mexican nationals, legal or not, who live within a consulate office's jurisdiction.

At that time, the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association also changed part of its policy on undocumented immigrants, saying "officers should accept matricular identification cards issued by the Mexican Consulate as valid ID" unless there is reason to believe they are fake or have been tampered with.

The group left implementation of the policy to the discretion of individual police chiefs; Petaluma and Sebastopol also now accept the consular cards as an ID.

Since then, the ICE data shows, 484 people have been handed over to the federal agency under Secure Communities, compared to 921 in the program's first year in Sonoma County.

To advocates, it signals a resounding success.

"That was a community organizing victory," Guzman said. "And it certainly goes to the credit of Sheriff (Steve) Freitas and the (Santa Rosa Police) Department for taking a more enlightened approach than law enforcement in many other communities."

"It's a huge step forward," said Christopher Kerosky of Sebastopol, an immigration attorney who practices in the North Bay and San Francisco.

But to Giraud, the change is anything but a victory. He finds the potential relationship between the matricula policy and the subsequent drop in the number of people being turned over to ICE deeply troubling.

"If this is a trend, this may only be the beginning then for counties to ultimately defy federal law and snub their noses at it, due to special interest group pressure," he said.

Among local law enforcement officials, however, there is less certainty that the decline in the number of people being handed over to ICE has to do with the consular card policy.

Santa Rosa Police Capt. Hank Schreeder, who announced his department's decision at the October 2011 meeting, called the numbers "interesting" but said data that might support or disprove the connection was not available to be reviewed last week.

Santa Rosa officers always were able to accept the consular card as an ID, he said. What's changed since 2011 is that department-wide trainings were instituted to teach officers how to detect fraudulent cards "so they had a greater sense of comfort."

"What I will say is, officers have the discretion to use the matricular card as the basis for identification for issuing a citation for infractions and potentially some misdemeanors in the field," Schreeder said.

But Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas, who called it "a great day" when he announced the policy change last October, said last week that at least some decline was foreseen.

"We knew that the matricular card was going to have some effect, because basically the goal is to cite in the field and not arrest them for petty crimes," he said. "We knew it would make some difference; we can't say how much."

Incorporating the matricula into the pantheon of accepted identification benefits both police and the undocumented immigrant community, said Aarti Kohli of UC Berkeley, co-author of a 2011 analysis of Secure Communities' data that concluded the program needs more checks and balances.

"What you find is, if someone is pulled over without identification, for law enforcement, that raises questions and they tend to err on the side of bringing folks to jail," said Kohli, senior fellow at the Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley law school.

"If you can determine that this person is who they say they are, that gets rid of the additional uncertainty," Kohli said. "I think what's happening in Sonoma is really instructive. It's telling us something: if people have identification they are perceived as much less of a threat."

That's a positive development, said Tiah-Marie Foley, who nearly lost her arms in 1998 after an unlicensed, illegal immigrant driver crashed into her car in Glen Ellen.

"I never thought I'd be on that side," said the Santa Rosa woman. "But if it (the policy) is working for the Sheriff's Office and police departments, it's working for me. If the number is cut in half, and just the felons are getting turned over to ICE, it's wonderful."

The Sheriff's Office still views Secure Communities as "a tool law enforcement can use to mitigate violent criminals in our community," Duenas said.

Accepting consular cards does not diminish that, he said, and, if anything, makes law enforcement's job easier by allowing it to identify more people with more certainty.

"Having a matricula card isn't a get-out-of-jail card," he said, noting that it would no more prevent a deputy from arresting someone than would someone's having a valid driver's license.

"If it's firm, fair and a compassionate way to enforce the law, we want to go that way. Anything that could help us work to make the community safer and not clog up our system to make it more efficient is a win-win for the community and for us," he said.

ICE has criticized actions that clearly cut against Secure Communities, such as a Cook County, Ill., law barring officials from turning over illegal immigrants to the agency if they do not have serious criminal convictions or outstanding warrants.

But in less clear-cut cases they have been silent, sensitive to concerns that the program makes local law enforcement agencies a partner in enforcing federal immigration law.

"There are some law enforcement agencies declining to honor ICE detainers and we've expressed concern about that, but in terms of how local law enforcement goes about its duties on the street, I think we need to honor local law enforcement," ICE spokeswoman Virgina Kice said last week when asked about the matricula policy in Sonoma County.

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jeremyhay.)

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