Federal agents no longer will scoop up jailed illegal immigrants who had been picked up by police for traffic offenses and other petty crimes, the nation's top immigration enforcer announced Friday.
"We are changing who" we seek to deport, said John Morton, the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The new policy, Morton said, restricts action "against individuals arrested for minor misdemeanor offenses ... helping to ensure that available resources are focused on apprehending felons, repeat offenders and other ICE priorities," according to a written statement.
At the same time, he announced the United States had deported a record 409,000 people in the past year.
The policy change drew mild praise and stronger criticism from a number of sources. The American Civil Liberties Union and the California Immigrant Policy Center welcomed it but hit what they called the continuing lack of due process that deprives illegal immigrants of access to courts. The Asian Law Caucus called the change "window dressing," saying that innocent people charged with felonies could still be deported.
Many called for passage of a California "Trust Act" to protect illegal immigrants who largely abide by the law, a measure Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed in September. The governor's veto message said he would support a bill if it ensures immigrants with "troubling criminal records" are kept in custody.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, promised an early 2013 fight to win passage of the legislation.
Morton changed the national policy just as sheriffs around the Bay Area were rethinking their cooperation with the controversial federal Secure Communities immigration program.
Their shift responds to the immigrant community concerns in places such as Contra Costa County, which is among the top counties nationwide in sending people without criminal records to deportation.
Since April 2010, only one-quarter of the 1,789 people deported after Contra Costa County turned them over had been convicted of crimes the federal government describes as "serious." Nearly 40 percent had been convicted of no crimes.
Like many jurisdictions around the country, the county jails the immigrants as part of the Secure Communities program, a fingerprint-sharing network it joined in 2010. Fingerprint checks that reveal deportable immigrants result in the jails holding them for up to 48 hours for federal agents.
Secure Communities "was intended to target the most dangerous and serious criminals," said Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston. "In practice it may be something different from that."
Livingston and his counterparts in Alameda, Napa and San Mateo counties had begun talking about whether to free such immigrants if there was no reason beyond their immigration status to hold them.
"There's general consensus that we're going to take a look at our policies," said San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks.
Los Angeles and San Diego counties were also re-evaluating their approach. Santa Clara County, an early critic of Secure Communities that fought to opt out of the program, has since limited who it holds for immigration agents.
Livingston said this week he plans to stop holding immigrants for federal agents if all the immigrants did was drive without a license, drink in public or commit other minor offenses.
"We're not immigration enforcement officers here in the county," he said.
"My overriding concern is, of course, public safety," Livingston said. "We don't want to release someone who turns out to be a violent offender."
State Attorney General Kamala Harris on Dec. 4 issued an opinion finding that police are not obligated to respond to ICE requests to detain low-level offenders.
According to those present, Morton acknowledged the same thing two days later at a meeting in Oakland with Governor Brown and sheriffs from around the state.