States Limit Help to U.S. Agency on Immigrant Detentions

With an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws stalled in Congress, some states and cities are moving on their own to let people such as Maria Sanchez stay in the country.

Sanchez, 46, who sells tamales on the street in Culver City, California, was turned over to federal immigration agents last year after being rear-ended in a traffic accident. She’s now fighting to stay in the U.S. with her five children, two of them U.S. citizens, and away from the local police.

“It’s not only happening to me,” Sanchez said. “Everybody thinks this way” about the police, she said.

That thinking may soon change.

California and Connecticut next month will become the first states to limit police cooperation with federal officials seeking to deport undocumented immigrants. The changes escalate a clash with President Barack Obama’s administration that began in Democratic strongholds, including New York and Cook County, Illinois, driven by concern about the effects deportations are having in foreign-born communities.

“It’s a reflection of the new political muscle that immigrant communities have gained in states over the years,” said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the New York office of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

The California and Connecticut laws challenge the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s now-routine requests to hold undocumented immigrants in local jails, even when charges are dropped, for 48 hours beyond their scheduled release. The extra time lets agents determine whether to seek deportation.

Database Check

The requests are based on Secure Communities, a database program first introduced in 2008 which by May was being used in 3,181 jurisdictions around the country, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. More than 279,000 people, more than three quarters with criminal records, had been deported because of it.

Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it focuses on deporting undocumented immigrants that pose a risk to public safety or who have repeatedly broken immigration laws.

The goal is “to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities,” she said in a statement.

The new state and local ordinances undermine federal enforcement and aren’t needed, given the current focus on those with criminal records, said Jessica Vaughn, the director of policy studies for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

‘Unnecessary’ Policies

“The real objective of these polices is to interfere with immigration enforcement,” said Vaughn, whose organization is in favor of tighter curbs on immigration. “It’s unnecessary, can have tragic consequences, and doesn’t do anything for public safety.”

Yet many held on federal detention requests don’t have a criminal history, according to data analyzed by researchers at Syracuse University. From Oct. 2011 through January 2013, about half of the 348,000 individuals held at federal request had no criminal records. Just 13 percent of the federal requests resulted in a deportation order, according to the researchers. Three quarters of the cases were still considered active investigations.

Mike Lawlor, who oversees criminal justice policy for Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said the detention system fosters suspicion about police in immigrant communities.

Undermining Police

If “calling the local police is inviting the immigration police to show up on your doorstep, then people will be reluctant to call the police or cooperate with them,” Lawlor said. “That would undermine the ability of the local police to do their job.”

Next month, Connecticut police will be barred from honoring ICE’s 48-hour detention requests, unless the person has been convicted of a felony -- or other select circumstances -- under a law signed by Malloy in June. California Governor Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, signed a similar law in October, which also takes effect in January.

State lawmakers in Massachusetts and Maryland are also considering curbs. They have already been adopted in 20 cities and counties, as well as in Washington, D.C., according to the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., which advocates for them. King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, adopted such limits earlier this month.

Record Deportations

The ordinances come as Obama’s administration has faced pressure from Democratic lawmakers and Hispanic backers to scale back deportations, which hit a record 409,900 in the 2012 budget year. During his five years in office, the Obama administration has sent 1.93 million people back to their home countries, close to what President George W. Bush did in eight years and nearly as many as in the 108 years before Bush took office.

The Obama administration recently began to reduce deportations. In June 2012, it exempted from deportation immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, a step that has since been extended families of military members. Deportations were set to drop by more than 10 percent in the 12 months through September compared to the year before.

ICE has also advised field offices only to request that law enforcement hold immigrants who it is most interested in deporting, such as those with repeated convictions.

ICE Requests

Alameda County, California, Sheriff Gregory Ahern, whose county includes the city of Oakland, said he honors as many as 1,000 requests a year from ICE agents who visit his jails and scour arrest records.

He said he doesn’t know how many he’ll have to turn down with the new law kicks in next month, which limits them to those who have been convicted or charged with one of several serious or violent crimes. He doesn’t welcome the potential conflict.

“There ought to be immigration reform that allows the state and federal government to be in compliance with one another,” he said. “It’s been a topic of major national concern for a decade and nothing’s been done.”

Sanchez, the California woman whose deportation proceedings began last year, said she’s hopeful that when she appears in court next year a judge will let her stay in the country. With the shift in state law, she said, others may be saved her experience.

“I am hoping that it will have a really positive effect -- because so many of us have been impacted,” she said. “But it’s going to really depend on if police put it into practice.”