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New Arizona Sheriff Says He Will No Longer Keep Immigrants Locked Up For Feds

Once a flashpoint in the immigration debate under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County will no longer hold inmates past their release dates for ICE.

Last updated on February 18, 2017, at 9:29 p.m. ET

Posted on February 17, 2017, at 11:27 p.m. ET

Matt York / AP

Maricopa County, the Arizona region once known for its controversial hard-line stance against undocumented immigrants and images of inmates forced to wear pink underwear in jail, will no longer keep immigrants locked up beyond their release dates for federal immigration officials.

The county, which includes the city of Phoenix, used to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold inmates past their release date if they were suspected of being undocumented.

That practice has ended Friday.

"We no longer have a legal authority to detain these individuals regardless of their immigration status," Maricopa's new sheriff, Paul Penzone, said at a press conference Friday night.

The change, Penzone said, was prompted by the threat of lawsuits being filed over holding inmates past their release dates without an arrest warrant.

Once led by Sheriff Joe Arpaio — the self-proclaimed "America's Toughest Sheriff" and outspoken critic of undocumented immigration — the agency and Arpaio had become a flashpoint in the country's debate over immigration.

Ross D. Franklin / AP

While in office, Arpaio became one of the most recognizable faces against undocumented immigration, forced inmates in his jails to wear pink underwear and to sleep outdoors in tent cities.

After taking office last month, Penzone said he would be doing away with the pink underwear and tent cities, calling them "stunts" by the previous sheriff.

The decision to no longer honor ICE requests and requiring the federal agency to obtain a warrant is the latest about-face taken by the department since Penzone took office.

"We are following our legal obligation," he said.

The move comes as a series of cities across the country have taken a position of becoming "sanctuary" or "welcoming" cities, promising that police will not ask witnesses or suspects of their immigration status.

However, the sheriff's decision to adopt the new policy would not make the county a so-called "sanctuary city" as they are commonly known. The new policy, Penzone said, had nothing to do with national politics or issues that occurred in the current presidential administration.

ICE agents will continue to work alongside Maricopa deputies inside the jails to identify people suspected of immigration violations, he said.

"We are not removing ICE from our jails," he said. "We are going to continue being aggressive in enforcement the law to keep our community safe."

Two groups that have opposed Arpaio and his policies, Puente Human Rights Movement and Mijente, commended Penzone's decision.

"Penzone's announcement cleans up just one of the many messes Arpaio left behind and is a step in the right direction," Jacinta Gonzalez, field director for Mijente. "He must go further however to ensure that all law enforcement agencies are obtaining judicial warrants before entering the jails."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.