SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Immigration officials say local authorities across the U.S. released thousands of immigrants from jails this year despite efforts to take them into federal custody, including more than 3,000 with previous felony charges or convictions.
The numbers are the first time federal immigration authorities have publicly detailed how many times local agencies have refused to comply with their requests. They highlight the friction between the federal government and police and sheriff's departments, some of which say holding immigrants beyond their release dates harms community policing efforts.
Immigration officials say the denials pose a public safety threat as immigrants who previously would have been placed in federal custody once they were eligible to leave jail are being released into communities where they could commit new crimes.
In the first eight months of this year, immigration agents filed roughly 105,000 requests for local agencies to hold immigrants for up to 48 hours after they were eligible for release on the allegations for which they initially were arrested, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agents wanted the immigrants held so they could take them into federal custody and start deportation proceedings.
Local law enforcement agencies declined 8,800 such requests, also known as detainers, during the same period. Those released include people arrested for investigation of domestic violence and drug charges, as well as others detained on lesser offenses but who had past convictions for crimes such as assault with a deadly weapon, Kice said.
Across the country, many local agencies no longer are willing to hold jailed immigrants beyond their scheduled release dates. They say immigrants should not be held longer than U.S citizens for the same crime, and turning them over to ICE creates an atmosphere of distrust among community members.
Colorado stopped honoring detainers earlier this year, and New York City is considering doing the same.
In California, local law enforcement agencies scaled back their collaboration with ICE to comply with a state law that took effect this year limiting the use of immigration detainers. After a federal court in nearby Oregon ruled a woman's constitutional rights were violated when she was held in jail without probable cause, some agencies stopped honoring the requests altogether.
Five Southern California counties no longer honor ICE's requests, said David Marin, deputy field office director for the agency's enforcement and removal operations in the greater Los Angeles area. He said he's shifted at least 40 agents from screening and transporting arrestees to teams working in the field to track down immigrants they believe are in the country illegally.
It takes more manpower to do so and puts his staff at greater risk, Marin said. And he believes some of the immigrants who are being released will commit new crimes, adding that his agency has filed multiple detainers this year for some immigrants, which indicates they have been re-arrested.
"There's a lot of crimes we could probably prevent if people would just honor our detainers," Marin said. He noted that because of a prison overhaul, local jails in California now house more lower-level felons who previously would have gone to state prison.
In Illinois, a man who was released from jail despite a 2011 request by immigration authorities to detain him shot and killed his 15-year-old girlfriend earlier this year, Kice said.
Some California sheriff's officials, however, say they're simply following the latest law governing the conditions under which anyone, an immigrant or otherwise, can be held by law enforcement.
In Riverside County, Chief Deputy Jerry Gutierrez said the Oregon ruling coupled with an ICE memo indicating the detainers were requests, not requirements, prompted his agency to stop honoring them.
"If we were to honor them, it would expose the county and the department to civil liability," he said. "Any person who is ordered to be released, we would be releasing them the same way."
In San Bernardino County, deputy Ruben Perez said his department has reported no problem with repeat offenders but it might be too soon to tell.
The change is welcomed by immigrant advocates, who have long fought the requests from immigration authorities to continue detaining people after they're eligible for release from jail, whether on bail or at the conclusion of a criminal case.
They say immigrants in communities that honored ICE's requests have been afraid to report crimes, and the policy change will improve, not hamper, public safety.
Chris Newman, legal director at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said deportation should not be used as a form of punishment.
"There has been an insidious erosion of constitutional rights protections," he said. "Immigrants and citizens should be treated alike by our criminal justice system."