S.F. officials want city to stop detaining people on federal immigration holds 

click to enlarge ICE
  • 2012 ICE via AP File photo
  • Federal detainers often lead to deportations for undocumented immigrants apprehended by law enforcement.

A San Francisco lawmaker wants to prohibit local law enforcement from holding undocumented immigrants at the request of federal authorities who then pick them up for deportation proceedings.

Supervisor John Avalos is stepping into the immigration-reform debate with legislation that would stop San Francisco from honoring immigration holds, or detainers, that are part of a controversial federal program called Secure Communities, or S-Comm.

Under the federal program, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reviews fingerprints of people who are arrested by local law enforcement agencies. ICE can request that law enforcement place an immigration hold on the person for up to 48 hours to allow the federal agency time to pick up the detained person for possible deportation.

"S-Comm all around the country has been really damaging to communities and immigrant communities in particular," Avalos said. "We are in a city that has a really high immigrant population. We know that there are a lot of people who have been deported here, and we can prevent that from happening."

He said the ICE detainers erode trust and create fear in immigrant communities.

"They're afraid that their loved ones will get caught up in the system. They're afraid to report crimes. They are afraid to be witnesses because they are concerned about how they can get ensnared in the ICE system," Avalos said.

The supervisor plans to unveil the proposal today at noon outside of City Hall. He says he has secured the support of seven colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, which would make the legislation able to withstand a mayoral veto.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said he supports the proposed prohibition.

"The local criminal justice system should be separate from the immigration and deportation business," Mirkarimi said.

The current department policy, which builds on former Sheriff Michael Hennessey's ICE detainer exemptions, is to hold people who are in custody on suspicion of a serious and violent felony, such as murder or rape, for up to 24 hours. The policy also includes honoring holds for people who have previous convictions for serious felonies.

In 2012, 542 people were turned over to ICE on detainers, according to the Sheriff's Department. It is unclear if they were ultimately deported.

Avalos' legislation comes after a backlash against the Secure Communities program and amid pending state legislation that also aims to minimize the number of people turned over to federal immigration officials by local law enforcement agencies.

Avalos' proposed local law, the San Francisco Due Process For All Ordinance, is modeled on a pending state bill, the Truth Act, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. But unlike that state legislation, Avalos' proposal prohibits all ICE holds.

Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a previous version of the Trust Act, writing in his veto message that, "I believe it's unwise to interfere with a sheriff's discretion to comply with a detainer issued for people with these kinds of troubling criminal records." A modified version of the legislation, Assembly Bill 4, is progressing through the state Legislature. It would exempt a narrower group of immigrants from ICE holds.

In December, state Attorney General Kamala Harris called the Secure Communities program flawed, and her office issued a directive stating that local law enforcement agencies had the option not to comply with ICE requests for immigration holds.

The City's Immigration Rights Commission sent a July 19 letter to Mayor Ed Lee backing Avalos' proposal and cited a recommendation of its recent report on policy reform.

"Although the program is presumably targeting immigrants who are criminals or who pose public safety problems, the vast majority of those detained because of the program are not criminals," the letter said.

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