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.