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California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued guidance saying police can choose whether to cooperate with ICE in deporting illegal aliens under the federal Secure Communities program even if ICE considers participation to be mandatory. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca subsequently announced he will no longer hand over to ICE illegal aliens arrested for low-level crimes.

Under the Secure Communities program, local law enforcement officials send all arrestees' fingerprints to ICE. If the person is a suspected illegal alien, ICE can issue a “detainer” that has police hold the person for 48 hours awaiting transfer to federal custody for deportation. ICE has consistently said local participation is mandatory.

During a press event, Harris said, “The federal government cannot mandate that these chiefs and sheriffs hold onto immigrants because of the request for detainer. The police chiefs and sheriffs have it within their discretion — within their authority — to honor that request or not.”

Harris said Secure Communities puts undue strain on local agencies and is flawed because it deports illegal aliens without criminal convictions. Secure Communities enabled the deportation of over 82,000 illegal aliens in California since the program began in 2008. Only one-third of those had a criminal conviction, according to Harris. She did not comment on whether ICE had sought the non-criminals for repeat immigration-law violations, however.

ICE issued a statement after Harris’ announcement that said the agency 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 federal government alone sets these priorities.”

Harris issued the guidance in the form of a bulletin to law enforcement officials. She claimed it was needed because a number of those officials had sought clarification on the Secure Communities program.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, said Sheriff Baca decided to ignore certain immigration detention requests after the attorney general issued guidance. He had previously taken the position that cooperation under Secure Communities was mandatory. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck also has stopped honoring detainers in cases involving low-level crimes.

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas doesn’t know if he will adopt any changes after Harris’ guidance. “The federal government has said consistently that it is mandatory,” Freitas said. The county is “going to need to do a legal analysis because the federal government doesn't agree with her.”

Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have prohibited local law enforcement agencies from honoring ICE detainers in cases involving low-level crimes. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the sponsor of the vetoed legislation, said he is ready to re-introduce the measure in the legislature’s new session, which began on December 3rd. Democrats now hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers.

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