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Biden pledge on police immigration contacts would largely make US a sanctuary country

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 8/14/2020 By Bob Egelko

Sanctuary laws in California, two other states and numerous cities largely prohibit police and jailers from taking part in federal immigration enforcement. They have not yet become a prominent issue in the presidential campaign, but that could change after Joe Biden’s latest proposal.

If Biden is elected president and carries out his plan, a version of California’s sanctuary law will be in effect nationwide.

In an “Agenda for the Latino Community” announced Aug. 4, the former vice president promised to undo President Trump’s enforcement of a law known as Section 287(g). Part of a restrictive immigration bill signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 — and supported by Biden and nearly all of his Democratic colleagues — 287(g) allows local governments to reach agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to aid in enforcing federal law.

Currently, that aid is limited to screening immigrants in local jails, identifying the undocumented and turning them over to ICE for deportation. The federal agency first provides four weeks of training for participating local officers.

Until the program was scaled back by President Barack Obama in 2012, however, it allowed some local governments to take part in on-the-street enforcement — most notably Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio targeted Latino neighborhoods and businesses for immigration raids. He defied a federal judge’s order to halt the practice and was convicted of criminal contempt by another judge in 2017 before being pardoned by Trump.

Whatever the scope of the 287(g) agreements, they “undermine trust and cooperation between local law enforcement and the communities they are charged to protect,” Biden’s campaign said last week. “As president, Biden will end all the agreements entered into by the Trump administration and aggressively limit the use of 287(g) and similar programs that force local law enforcement to take on the role of immigration enforcement.”

ICE says it has 146 such agreements now, more than half of them in two states — 48 in Florida and 26 in Texas. The agency formerly had 287(g) pacts in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, but those were prohibited by California’s sanctuary law, which took effect in October 2018.

“Federal, state and local officers working together provide a tremendous benefit to public safety through increased law enforcement communication and overall community policing effectiveness,” ICE says on its website. “Under the program, state and local partners benefit by reducing the number of criminal offenders that are released back into the community without being screened for immigration violations.”

Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors broad application of 287(g), said the program serves as a “force multiplier” for federal immigration enforcement while allowing local police and sheriffs “to determine for themselves how they are best utilized.”

But Jennifer Chacón, a UCLA law professor, said studies so far have shown that 287(g) agreements lead to “increased policing in Latinx communities” with no measurable improvement in public safety.

Amada Armenta, who teaches urban planning at UCLA, went on ride-alongs with police in Tennessee during the street-enforcement phase of 287(g), and later wrote a book about it. She said most of the immigrants officers held for deportation were stopped for driving without a license.

Ending the ICE contracts “would mean that millions of immigrants would be less afraid that a minor infraction (such as driving without a license, or fishing without a license ...) would result in their deportation,” Armenta told The Chronicle. “ICE is not removing most people identified through 287(g) because they’re dangerous, they’re removing them because they have the authority to do so.”

Biden didn’t mention sanctuary cities or states in his policy proposal, but it appears to take the same approach to the state-federal relationship as the California law.

The law, SB54, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2017 and took effect in 2018. It bars state and local enforcement officers from cooperating with federal immigration agents in a number of ways: notifying agents of an immigrant’s scheduled release date from prison or jail, keeping the immigrant in detention beyond the release date for transfer to federal agents, giving agents personal information about detainees, granting immigration officers access to local jails or arresting anyone for allegedly violating immigration law. Most of those restrictions do not apply to detainees held on serious criminal charges.

The Trump administration filed suit accusing the state of interfering with immigration enforcement, but federal courts upheld the core of SB54, and the Supreme Court left the courts’ rulings intact. Statewide sanctuary laws were also passed in Oregon in 1987 and in Washington state last year.

SB54 regulates some conduct outside jails and prisons and therefore goes further than Biden’s plan to end 287(g) agreements. But the candidate’s basic position — that local police, the first point of law enforcement contact for most residents, should keep their distance from the federal immigration system — was shared by the lawmakers who passed SB54.

“Anyone, regardless of their legal status, should feel comfortable reporting a crime without having to worry about being torn from their families,” the author of SB54, former state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, said in an interview. “That’s why Vice President Biden’s proposal represents an enormous step towards improving public safety across the nation.”

De León, now a Los Angeles city councilman-elect, drafted the law with the help of Eric Holder, former attorney general under Obama, whose administration had a mixed record on immigration.

Obama’s 2012 executive order, after a congressional deadlock, established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allowing young undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. and obtain work permits. Trump’s attempt to end DACA was rejected by the Supreme Court in June, but he has refused to fully reinstate the program and is still vowing to abolish it. Biden supports DACA and promises, on his first day in office, to propose legislation that would open a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

But while Obama spoke against wholesale deportations and told immigration agencies to focus on removing serious criminals, his administration deported a record 3.2 million people in eight years, an action Biden eventually called a “big mistake” this February after being pressed by Democratic rivals.

One program Biden has not mentioned is called Secure Communities. Launched by executive action under President George W. Bush and enlarged under most of Obama’s presidency, it requires every local police and sheriff’s department to relay to ICE the fingerprints of anyone they arrest and book into jail. That allows the agency to locate deportable immigrants and request their detention, though local officers are not required to hold them beyond their scheduled release dates, and some courts have ruled such detentions illegal.

After nearly six years of expanded use, Obama scaled back Secure Communities in 2014 and largely limited its enforcement to immigrants convicted of serious crimes. Trump reinstated it fully in 2017.

Biden’s Latino agenda included a pledge to “aggressively limit” programs “similar” to 287(g), but he didn’t say whether those included Secure Communities. If not, said UCLA’s Chacon, that portion of his agenda may be more symbolic than substantive.

“Why have those formal agreements when you can run full throttle on Secure Communities and ICE policing?” Chacon asked, referring to federal compacts under 287(g). “If I’m a local police chief or sheriff and I feel like that’s my priority, I can go after communities where there’s a high percentage” of immigrants and relay their prints to ICE. After that, she said, “it can all look automated.”

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BobEgelko

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