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.