San Joaquin County this week joined a growing list of law enforcement agencies that won’t hold inmates just because they are in the country illegally.
“Effective immediately, all inmates currently being held solely on an immigration detainer will be released from custody,” Sheriff Steve Moore said in an “interim directive” released by his department. “No inmate will be held on an immigration detainer once they are eligible for release. This does not include inmates with pending criminal charges that would normally be held for criminal proceedings.”
Sheriffs in Stanislaus and Merced counties said they are considering changes to their practices but have not yet made any.
For several years, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainers have been a key tool in a controversial federal immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities. The program was an effort to target undocumented immigrants who had committed serious or violent crimes.
The program, which taps into extensive databases with the Department of Homeland Security, attempts to identify immigrants who may be in the country illegally. When these immigrants pass through local jails, they trigger a request for an ICE detainer.
Immigration attorneys and advocates argued that the program was overreaching because it was landing many immigrants who had committed minor or no offenses in deportation proceedings. In some cases, U.S. citizens were being detained.
In response to such criticism, California last year passed the Trust Act, which requires that immigrants in the country illegally be charged with or convicted of a serious offense to be eligible for a 48-hour hold and transfer to U.S. immigration authorities for possible deportation.
Federal officials have consistently warned that the holds are not voluntary and that local officials are mandated to honor them.
But the courts recently rejected that position. A recent federal ruling found immigration holds are not mandated and that holding someone beyond his or her release date once local charges have been resolved could potentially violate an individual’s civil rights.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said while the relationship with ICE agents locally has been good, his office has been frustrated seeking assistance from the federal agency.
“We think a reasonable solution would be to have a judge review a probable cause declaration for anyone being held on an immigration detainer, just as we do for anyone being held on criminal charges,” he said in an email.
In Merced County, Sheriff Tom Cavallero said the matter has been under discussion, with another meeting about the subject set next week. “(It’s) business as usual for now, though,” he said.
Christianson also faulted the Trust Act, calling it a failure that “allows dangerous criminals to be released back into our community.” He said his office is working with County Counsel John Doering to determine what, if any, policy changes should be made.
The sheriff pointed to a case last week in which the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency arrested five criminal illegal immigrants in a massive marijuana grow.
“Three have prior criminal convictions and deportations, including convictions for domestic violence and narcotics trafficking,” Christianson said. “Despite all of that, they were allowed to bail out, thanks to the Trust Act. Pretty sure we’re not going to see any of them show up in court.”
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report. Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter @PattyGuerra.