An agreement [PDF] announced yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union limits the involvement of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office in enforcing federal immigration laws.
In a lawsuit filed in September 2008 on behalf of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County and three individuals, the ACLU argued the sheriff's office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement went beyond their authority to detain Latino immigrants, many of whom had not been arrested on criminal charges.
The lawsuit originally focused on ICE’s practice of issuing immigrant detainers – 48-hour holds on suspected illegal immigrants – without criminal charges. ICE issued a policy clarification last August saying detainers were meant only for individuals already being held on criminal charges.
“In some ways, many of the goals of the case were achieved even before the settlement, when ICE issued a policy … really ending the use of immigration detainers to put people into custody without any previous charges,” said Julia Harumi Mass, lead lawyer for the ACLU.
The Sonoma County sheriff could not be reached for comment.
The current settlement addresses other parts of the lawsuit, including when the sheriff's office should provide ICE with information on detained immigrants and collaborate on enforcement operations.
For one, it prevents Sonoma County law enforcement from working in joint operations with ICE "unless ICE refrains from arresting or taking custody of persons solely based on a suspicion that they are unlawfully present in the country."
“We feel that there are several immigration laws and policies that don’t keep pace with the day-to-day reality of most communities, and local law enforcement agencies get stuck in the middle,” Mass said. “We believe that these policies are some examples of reasonable practices that can be a model for other counties.”
The ACLU maintains that local law enforcement officials in California are not authorized to make arrests based on civil immigration laws, such as being in the country illegally, but they can make arrests for criminal immigration violations.
The settlement has no effect on existing immigration laws, including the Secure Communities program – a controversial initiative launched in 2009 to identify and remove illegal immigrants who’ve committed serious offenses.
A bill that would allow counties to opt out of the program is currently in the state Senate Appropriations Committee.
Secure Communities "is not a program that the county has control over,” Mass said, “but they do have control over whether they release information voluntarily.”
In that regard, the sheriff’s office can no longer give immigration officials information regarding individuals arrested solely for traffic violations or misdemeanor driving infractions, unless a warrant or an imminent public safety concern exists. It also most post notices in English and Spanish informing detainees of their federal rights.
Two of the individuals named in the lawsuit also were given monetary rewards of $3,000 and $5,000 in the settlement.