Federal immigration officials hastily changed their opt-out policies after officials from San Francisco and other counties actually took them up on the assurance that they could not participate in a controversial program to identify illegal immigrants.
A trove of e-mails released Wednesday provide insight as to why the Immigration and Customs Enforcement response to Sheriff Michael Hennessey was so confused — jumping back and forth on the question of whether a local community could refuse to take part in the program.
The e-mails, released by Uncover the Truth, a nonprofit agency that filed public-records requests for the correspondence, show ICE officials struggling to control public perception of their Secure Communities program. In so-called sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, the program has been under fire for deporting illegal immigrants who have committed no crime except being in the country illegally.
Hennessey was one of the first public officials to call for an opt-out of the program, but he met with resistance. ICE originally said local jurisdictions could refrain from participating in the program. Then it changed that to only states. Then it revised the policy so that no jurisdictions could opt out.
"From a professional law enforcement perspective, it’s been frustrating and embarrassing to have to follow their tracks on this," Hennessey said in an interview.
The pressure to change the agency’s policies only intensified after Santa Clara County followed San Francisco in voting to opt out of the program. In one September e-mail, ICE Assistant Deputy Director Beth Gibson explained to two colleagues the urgency of changing the public message about the program.
"I am now focused on how to rework our messaging on the ‘opting out’ issue emerging in several places," Gibson wrote. "The urgency on the get backs has increased, particularly in light of the Santa Clara votes."
A review of the documents by the Associated Press found that the administration rewrote the program’s participation rules, considered withholding federal funding and FBI information from governments that resisted, and eventually dug up case law to justify requiring cooperation.
"Deliberative, internal correspondence should not be confused for final policy," ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. "Because Secure Communities is fundamentally an information-sharing partnership between federal agencies, state and local jurisdictions cannot opt out from the program, though state and local jurisdictions can opt not to receive the results of immigration queries."