On Second Thought, Los Angeles Sheriff Stands Against Federal Immigration Program

In an about-face, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has joined the city's police chief and mayor in stating he will no longer hand over undocumented immigrants arrested for low-level crimes to federal officials.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Baca has reversed his position on participating in the federal Secure Communities Program. Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck made the same announcement in October but details of Beck's plan have yet to be defined. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also against the program.

Secure Communities calls for local law enforcement to send all arrestees' fingerprints to immigration authorities. If the person is a suspected undocumented immigrant, authorities can request the local agency to hold the person for 48 hours until a transfer to federal custody.

Spokesman Steve Whitmore says the sheriff reversed his position after the state attorney general on Tuesday told local policing agencies that compliance with the program is voluntary.

Critics say the program has made immigrants fearful of reporting crimes and cooperating with police.

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The LA county sheriff's announcement is the latest in a national pushback from major U.S. cities against the Secure Communities program. Lawmakers in cities such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Cambridge, Mass., El Paso, Houston, Seattle and others have passed ordinances taking a stand against participating in the program.

In September, Chicago approved the "Welcoming City Ordinance" to protect undocumented immigrants from being in contact with federal immigration authorities, unless they have been convicted of a serious crime or are a wanted criminal.

Lee Baca's announcement also comes months after California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to limit local law enforcement involvement with Secure Communities, which is touted by federal officials as a crime-fighting tool and blasted by immigrant advocates, who say it deters immigrants from reporting crime.

The program's critics, who also include many police chiefs and other law enforcement officials, say it often ends up targeting people who are not a danger to their community, in contrast to the assertion of federal officials that it aims to remove the most dangerous criminals from the country.

It also comes after Santa Clara County and Cook County, Ill., stopped honoring immigration detainers, which involves local police holding an immigrant until immigration officials take custody, under the program.

This year, the Los Angeles police department expects that roughly 400 out of 3,400 requests for 48-hour immigration detainers will involve such low-level crimes.

Beck said he hopes the change can take effect Jan. 1.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Los Angeles is exploring an option not much different than the agency's established priorities.

"Over the past three and half years, ICE has been dedicated to implementing smart, effective reforms to the immigration system that allow it to focus its resources on criminals, recent border-crossers and repeat immigration law violators," the agency said in a statement.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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