Federal immigration agents are being given access to Los Angeles County jail inmates who have been convicted of a serious crime and may be deported, according to new guidelines issued this week.
The new policies give U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents full access to the nation's largest jail system, databases, and permission to interview inmates. The guidelines also allow federal agents access to inmates who are being released.
Only inmates who have been convicted of serious crimes would be vetted by ICE agents for possible deportation under the guidelines, which take effect this week.
The sheriff’s department will also give ICE an up to seven-day heads up before an undocumented immigrant is released from custody. At the same time, inmates will be told if federal agents filed a notification or detainer request and be advised of their opportunity to ask for legal counsel.
L.A. County's new guidelines stand in stark contrast those in so-called "sanctuary cities," such as San Francisco, which have reduced their cooperation with federal immigration authorities to near-zero in an effort to foster stronger ties with immigrant communities.
Criticism of that approach grew louder after the fatal shooting of Kathryn Steinle on a popular San Francisco pier earlier this year, allegedly by a five-time deportee who had a criminal record.
But Pablo Alvarado, director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), said ICE has no place in local jails and that the L.A. County policy will result in senseless deportations and potential civil rights violations. He believes Sheriff Jim McDonnell's decision was influenced by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's recent controversial comments on immigrants.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the Los Angeles sheriff has been influenced by a summer of hateful scapegoating of immigrants,” Alvarado said. “The sheriff cannot be authorized to turn over L.A. community members to the control of ICE merely due to the misfortune of their having wound up in a county detention facility.”
In a letter to L.A. County Supervisors, McDonnell said the new policies fall in line with the federal government’s announcement last year of a new deportation initiative, the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) — program meant to replace it’s controversial, and litigious, predecessor, Secure Communities.
The Board of Supervisors had voted to deny ICE permanent residency in the county jail system earlier this year, citing fears that their presence was eroding trust among the immigrant inmate population.
Then, in November, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said ICE would be targeting convicted criminals for deportation under PEP. People with a criminal conviction, who intentionally participated in a criminal gang, or who pose a danger to national security would be top priorities.
The new L.A. County guidelines are being billed as a way to accommodate that new federal emphasis on potential deportees.
McDonnell, for example, said his department wouldn't make inmates available to ICE if they fall under PEP, but fail to meet the standards established by the California Trust Act, which only allows local officials to make inmates convicted of serious crimes available to federal immigration authorities.
The sheriff's department also will not detain inmates beyond their date of release solely based on an ICE request, McDonnell said.
"It is the department’s aim to balance and reconcile these provisions, while also keeping in mind the needs, safety, and vitally important trust of our community," he said in his letter.
However, Alvarado said the California Trust Act must be a floor, not a ceiling, for protections afforded to immigrants in the state. He said the crimes that would allow ICE agents to access detainees should be accompanied by a statute of limitations for convictions.
“In recent months, ICE agents have touted ‘record-setting’ raids in Southern California, removing immigrants from their homes and families, despite their often having lived in the United States for decades, and often citing as justification minor crimes committed years — if not decades — prior,” Alvarado said.
Shiu-Ming Cheer, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said the L.A. County Sheriff’s policies exceed what the PEP calls for. Under PEP, Cheer said, ICE agents are allowed to investigate someone whose fingerprints indicate they are in the country illegally and meet DHS' priorities.
"The Sheriff’s policy exceeds the limitations of PEP because it allows ICE unfettered access to the release area of the L.A. County jail and allows ICE to interview people who don’t have biometric hits," Cheer said. "This access goes above and beyond PEP and easily leads to instance of racial profiling or fishing expeditions by ICE."
Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU in Southern California, said McDonnell’s move to reinsert ICE agents into the jails goes against what county supervisors voted to do back in May. Villagra said ICE should not have full access to the sheriff’s department’s databases, “all inmates” in the release area of the jail, and juveniles.
“Despite the supervisors’ clear direction, the sheriff has once again sought to provide ICE unlimited access to county databases and inmates in the release area of the jail,” Villagra said in a statement. "The plan not only uses county resources for federal immigration enforcement, it undermines trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities."