San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey will begin releasing illegal immigrants suspected of low-level crimes instead of turning them over to federal authorities starting today, but individual sheriff’s deputies may be under no obligation to follow that policy.
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That’s according to a previous legal advice letter from the City Attorney’s Office that said city officials cannot be barred from assisting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a retired sheriff’s deputy who disagrees with Hennessey’s defense of The City’s sanctuary policy.
Under Hennessey’s new policy, illegal immigrants arrested for low-level crimes such as shoplifting, drug possession and public drunkenness won’t be held in jail, even if federal immigration agents request that they be detained for immigration proceedings. The move has drawn criticism from opponents of illegal immigration and ICE, which has called Hennessey’s policy “unfortunate.”
Hennessey has said the change in policy is a way for San Francisco’s jails to comply with The City’s sanctuary ordinance, which prohibits local officials from cooperating with federal authorities except in the case of suspected felons.
For years, Hennessey had a policy to report suspected felons to ICE, but not illegal immigrants suspected of misdemeanors. After the implementation of a federal fingerprinting program called Secure Communities in June 2010, however, all information is now automatically sent to ICE on any illegal immigrant that is booked in county jail.
Retired Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Warren said he had ignored Hennessey’s policies in the past, and that he would refer illegal immigrants to ICE even if they had only committed low-level crimes.
“[Hennessey] put exponentially more effort into proving ICE wrong, as well as trying to opt out of Secure Communities, than he ever put into cooperating with them,” said Warren, who retired in April after 26 years at the department.
His actions were protected by federal law, Warren said, and a city attorney’s opinion backs up that claim.
“Federal law prohibits a government entity from preventing its officials from reporting immigration status information to ICE,” read an August 2009 memo to Mayor Gavin Newsom.
That opinion was in response to a law passed by the Board of Supervisors that requires illegal immigrant juveniles the chance to go to trial for an alleged crime before their information is sent to federal officials.
But if a city employee chooses to send that information, or to keep an illegal immigrant accused of a low-level offense in jail until ICE could pick them up, there’s nothing to stop them.
Hennessey said the new policy to not honor ICE detainers is legal because that is what Secure Communities director David Venturella told him late last year. Federal officials have yet to respond to a clarification request from the office of Mayor Ed Lee.
Asked what the sheriff would do if a deputy did not follow his new policy, spokeswoman Eileen Hirst responded, “We would follow the law.”