By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California's attorney general warned police departments statewide on Wednesday that it is generally illegal for them to honor immigration detention requests from the federal government unless the detainee has a criminal history of serious or violent offenses.
The directive by Attorney General Kamala Harris cited the recent enactment of a state law dubbed the Trust Act in outlining new limits on California's compliance with a federal program that has helped deport hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
She also cited a federal court case in Oregon as leaving local police agencies vulnerable to civil rights lawsuits for detaining individuals solely on the basis of a request from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE.
The directive is aimed at the federal government's Secure Communities program, which was launched in 2008 in partnership with the FBI and local law enforcement to deport unauthorized immigrants who are arrested by police for other offenses.
Under the program, ICE can ask that locally jailed people suspected of having entered the country illegally be held for up to 48 hours extra to give federal immigration authorities more time to take custody of them.
The program was cited as a factor in nearly 400,000 deportations conducted by ICE in 2011, its highest number ever.
Critics have lambasted the program for placing victims of domestic violence in deportation proceedings and deterring immigrants from reporting crimes.
"When local law enforcement officials are seen as de facto immigration enforcers, it erodes the trust between our peace officers and the communities they serve," Harris said in a statement.
In December 2012, Harris issued a directive making clear that it was strictly voluntary for local police to honor federal immigration "detainers."
The latest directive goes further, warning that keeping detainees in local police custody on the basis of a federal immigration enforcement request alone was in most cases a violation of the California TRUST Act.
That law forbids police and sheriffs from keeping individuals detained under ICE requests in most cases unless the person has a history of serious or violent crimes, federal charges or is a registered sex offender or arsonist.
Several California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have adopted their own local prohibitions against complying with federal immigration detention requests.
(Editing by Jim Loney)