San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey will start releasing illegal immigrants arrested for low-level crimes from jail even if federal officials notified through a controversial fingerprint identification program request that they be held for a deportation hearing.
The new policy, set to begin June 1, means illegal immigrants arrested for petty crimes such as disorderly conduct, drunk in public or shoplifting will not be held in jail until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials come to collect them.
San Francisco would become the first county in California to implement such a policy, he said.
Local jails are not required to hold inmates if ICE has identified them as illegal immigrants, and sheriff’s deputies would not be violating any law, Hennessey said.
The change is meant to uphold San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance, which prohibits local officials from assisting ICE unless it involves a felony.
“I’m just doing our best to enforce local law. That’s my job,” said Hennessey, who has announced he will retire at the end of the year.
Federal officials have been able to circumvent sanctuary city policies throughout the country through a program called Secure Communities. That program allows ICE to monitor fingerprint data collected during the booking process and put holds, known as “detainers,” on people they believe to be illegal immigrants.
From June 2010 until February, 111 people identified through Secure Communities in San Francisco were deported without ever being convicted in criminal court, according to the most recent ICE data. Federal officials deported 85 people who committed the lowest two levels of crimes, while 45 people who had committed felonies such as rape and assault had been deported.
As it stands now, sheriff’s deputies hold low-level criminals until ICE picks them up. Once the new policy takes effect, however, sheriff’s deputies will release them from jail with a citation just as they would a U.S. citizen, even with an ICE detainer.
In a prepared statement, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Hennessey’s decision was unfortunate.
“ICE detainers are an effective tool to ensure that individuals arrested on criminal charges, who are also in violation of U.S. immigration law, are not released back into the community to potentially commit more crimes,” Kice said.
The move is generating sharp criticism from groups opposed to sanctuary cities.
“It’s an astonishing abuse of his office,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group that is currently suing The City over a similar immigration issue.
“I guarantee you that someone who is released by him as a result of his lawlessness will go on to commit a more serious crime,” Fitton said.
Secure Communities has come under increasing fire across the state and country as non-criminals continue to be swept up through the program. Hennessey has attempted to opt out of the program since its inception, but ICE has said only states can opt out of the program.
This week, Illinois announced it will terminate its Secure Communities agreement, and last week a bill authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano that would require the attorney general to allow California counties to opt out of the program passed out of a committee.
San Francisco County inmates from June 2010 to February:
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Correction: This article was corrected on May 6, 2011. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 19,058 "possible illegal immigrants" were identified by the Secure Communites program. That number refers the total number of fingerprints submitted by San Francisco County since Secure Communities began.