SAN DIEGO (AP) — A new policy that lets immigration officials decide whether to release immigrant prisoners in federal custody to local police or deport them has been in place for months in an effort to avoid a repeat of the fatal shooting in San Francisco by a Mexican convict who was freed last year, officials said Thursday.
The change, which officially took effect Feb. 12 but has been applied informally for months, gives U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement a right of first refusal when a federal prisoner who completes a sentence is wanted by local authorities for other crimes, a senior agency official said. Previously, local police had first say.
The ICE official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss policy changes, estimated that 400 to 500 federal prisoners are released to local authorities each year on warrants for other crimes. The vast majority of prisoners are in state custody.
While the number is modest, it aims to send a signal to local agencies that have refused to cooperate with immigration authorities. The ICE official said the policy will prevent federal prisoners from being released to local police forces that have been uncooperative.
ICE regional directors will decide cases individually, weighing the nature of the crimes and their relationship with the local agency, the official said. Even if ICE agrees to turn over the prisoner to local police, locals must pledge to return the suspect to immigration authorities when their cases are finished.
The policy, announced Wednesday by Attorney General Loretta Lynch at a congressional hearing, comes less than a year after the fatal shooting of Kate Steinle, 32, by an immigrant who had just completed a federal sentence and was released after the San Francisco Sheriff's Department ignored a request from immigration authorities to hold him for deportation. Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez had been deported five times and had a lengthy criminal record.
The policy change produced rare moment of harmony between Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration on immigration.
"I want to express my sincere gratitude to you for this new policy that you've adopted," Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, was more guarded, saying, "This is encouraging to hear this. But I believe that old saying of trusting and verifying."
Doris Meissner, the top immigration official under President Bill Clinton, said the policy may be an effort to stall more drastic proposals in Congress to punish so-called sanctuary cities like San Francisco.
"In the atmosphere we're in, where sanctuary cities have become such a visible and contentious issue, it's obviously trying to respond to that," said Meissner, now at the Migration Policy Institute.
The ICE official said the agency hasn't received any backlash from local police since the policy was introduced several months ago. It officially took effect Feb. 12 with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between ICE and the federal Bureau of Prisons.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, who has a strong relationship with ICE, anticipated no impact on his department. But he said it could affect San Francisco and other cities that restrict cooperation with immigration authorities.
"I can understand why the federal government is doing this," Gore said. "If it leads to better cooperation between local, state and federal law enforcement, I think that's a good thing."
Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed to this report.