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New Immigration Rules for Orange County: The Debate Continues

Immigration is not an easy problem to solve, with undocumented workers from many countries (not just Mexico) working illegally, and some allegedly committing crimes. And now with new immigration rules issued by the Obama administration, it can be confusing to understand how an undocumented immigrant should be handled and the rights this person may have.

Take the ongoing investigation of the Santa Ana police, for example, that drew widespread attention thanks to a video released to the public last year showing six police officers beating an undocumented immigrant during his arrest on June 20, 2014. The footage, recorded from a security camera at a Santa Ana home, shows the officers kicking, punching, and swinging a flashlight and baton at 27-year-old Edgar Vargas-Arzate as he lay facedown on the ground.

Attorneys for Vargas-Arzate have filed a federal lawsuit, citing an unjustified use of brutal force. But the case has also sparked an immigration debate with the Santa Ana police accused of tipping off federal immigration officials.

When it comes to convicted undocumented immigrants, the relationship between local police and U.S. Immigrant & Customs Enforcement (ICE) requires cooperation. In the past, federal authorities could request that the police hold undocumented immigrants who had been accused of non-immigration crimes for up to 48 hours after their slated release dates. Typically, many of those transferred to federal authorities either had lower-priority charges or were free of non-immigrant crime convictions.

However, since a federal court in Oregon struck down that practice, deeming it unconstitutional, police are now considering an Obama administration enforcement strategy intended to achieve the same goal but with a shifted focus on more serious offenders. That proposal is known as the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP).

Part of the new program has the local police voluntarily call ICE when an undocumented immigrant accused of a non-immigration crime is slated for jail release, allowing federal authorities to be on hand to pick up the offender if they wish to deport that prisoner.

But on the other hand, California law enforcement agencies are also abiding by the Trust Act, which prohibits them from holding undocumented immigrants unless they are convicted of felonies and serious misdemeanors. As a result, suddenly the Trust Act saw a side effect: a decrease in the number of detainees secured by ICE. According to Orange County Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea, the numbers plummeted from 100-150 per month to 30 a year with most offenders convicted of felonies such as rape and felony assault.

Orange County currently has an agreement with the federal government to train officers to identify undocumented immigrants and initiate proceedings in compliance to ICE. In response, immigrant activists are advocating for a new law to prohibit Santa Ana police from asking community residents about their immigration status. They also want to stop police involvement in federal immigration-related sweeps and prevent grand federal authorities access to Santa Ana facilities, records or detainees without a criminal warrant.

Others, however, believe that such a law would lead to more incidents like the July 1 shooting of Kate Steinle in San Francisco (whose family is pushing for tougher immigration laws), a city that placed limits on local police from engaging with federal immigration authorities. While some want legislation that would make it illegal for cities like San Francisco to loosen immigration enforcement, opponents assert that collaboration between law enforcement and ICE would lead to less trust in the police and consequently fewer crimes reported.

PEP hopes to bridge both views. While it may be too early to say whether or not they will succeed, PEP’s goal is to detain and deport undocumented criminals but discourage local police to hold immigrants whose only crime is related to immigration.

If you suspect the authorities are mishandling a criminal case, call us today for a free case review. 714-713-4525.