LOS ANGELES — Sheriffs around the nation are openly rejecting the Obama administration policy of holding noncitizens who are accused or convicted of crimes for extra time, which for years has enabled the federal government to begin deportation proceedings for thousands of immigrants.
The local decisions are limiting the Obama administration’s ability to enforce immigration laws and could significantly decrease the number of immigrants deported each year.
The phenomenon started this spring, after a federal judge in Oregon ruled that a sheriff there had violated one immigrant woman’s civil rights by holding her in the county jail solely at the request of federal agents. Almost immediately, sheriffs across the state started refusing to honor the policy, which asks them to hold undocumented inmates without probable cause for a criminal violation, a process known as a detainer.
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Now, dozens of sheriffs are doing the same: releasing noncitizen offenders who have served their time rather than holding them longer on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security. For years, the administration has asked them to hold such people for up to 48 hours after they were scheduled for release, giving Immigration and Customs Enforcement extra time to investigate whether they could be deported for immigration violations.
But these sheriffs — many of them in California, and some in Minnesota, Kansas and Washington — say the court decision in Oregon forces their hand, since they cannot risk doing something that a United States magistrate judge has found unconstitutional.
“When a judge says something is in violation of the Fourth Amendment, I am not going to just keep doing it,” said Sheriff William Gore of San Diego. “If they want to take someone into federal custody, they can decide to do that, but I am not going to keep holding somebody because they ask me to, and nothing more than that.”
The decision, said Sheriff Gore, echoing the sentiments of other sheriffs, has nothing to do with his own position on immigration, but rather with the predicament that Washington seems to have left him with. “We need them to figure this out,” he said. “They can’t just rely on us to do it for them.”
The Obama administration expanded the detainer program as a way to strengthen immigration enforcement and create a uniform policy for local police and sheriffs’ departments. Now, the backlash is creating the kind of patchwork system the policy was meant to avoid. Last month, California’s attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, published an advisory memo telling local law enforcement officials that departments that abide by the detainer requests could be vulnerable to lawsuits.
The local changes are likely to increase pressure on President Obama, who is already facing criticism from both sides of the immigration debate. Amid the influx of Central American immigrants along the Texas border, Republicans in Congress are increasingly lashing out against what they see as lax enforcement, even as immigration reform advocates intensify their efforts to persuade the administration to ease deportations. Federal officials request detainers on many noncitizens in jails, including people who have been arrested merely for driving without a license as well as those convicted of serious crimes, such as armed robbery.
Under the program, jails are supposed to send fingerprints of everyone arrested to the Department of Homeland Security, where they can be checked against databases tracking immigration violations, and to hold people in custody while they are investigated.
Federal officials initially described the program as voluntary, then later implied that all local law enforcement agencies were required to comply. But more and more local leaders have pushed back — the mayor of Boston recently joined the fray, and the sheriff in Orange County, Calif., widely considered a conservative pocket in California, has also decided not to abide by the holds.
In recent months, federal officials have told local agencies that it is more a request than a requirement, but confusion has only added to frustrations.
“We’ve always tried to pin down whether this is a ‘shall’ or ‘will’ or ‘may’ — is it a request or an order?” Sheriff Gore said. “There’s never been a real answer to that.”
When California lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 to essentially eliminate the program statewide, federal officials lobbied Gov. Jerry Brown to veto it, as he eventually did. But when a similar measure, known as the Trust Act, passed last year, Mr. Brown signed it into law, and federal officials said they would do nothing to stop it.
Not all sheriffs appear eager to curb their efforts to help the federal authorities. Donny Youngblood, the sheriff of Kern County in inland California, has criticized the Trust Act and continues to hold immigrants past their release dates.
“If you’re in this country illegally and you commit a crime, you should be deported — that seems so simple to me,” Sheriff Youngblood said. “If you show not once but multiple times you have no respect for the laws of this country, that’s disturbing. We have an obligation to public safety, and if someone is charged with a serious criminal act and immigration officials want him, I reserve the right to hold that person so that can happen.”
Homeland Security officials have not commented on the court ruling in Oregon on detainers or said whether they planned any legal response. But Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, has acknowledged flaws in the Secure Communities program, which generates the majority of the holds.
“It’s gotten off to a very bad start,” Mr. Johnson said at a Senate hearing last month. He said recent laws and policies limiting local cooperation with federal hold requests were “limiting the ability of our people to do their job” and had created “an extremely unfortunate situation.”
Immigration reform advocates regard the flood of local responses as a major victory, potentially crushing what they see as a driver of inhumane decisions that have forced immigrants back over the border for minor infractions like traffic violations.
“This is a problem with basic civil rights — we do not hold people without due process in this country,” said Jennie Pasquarella, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which has sent letters warning county sheriffs here to stop honoring the federal immigration detainers. “You cannot deprive someone of liberty without having probable cause to know they could be deported. The local sheriffs all over the state are really recognizing that reality.”
The immigration detainers were introduced nearly a decade ago, but the use of them increased when Mr. Obama took office, in large part to emphasize the kind of enforcement efforts the administration called its priority: capturing criminals who were living here illegally and likely to commit more crimes.
In some places, like Massachusetts and Illinois, state officials resisted almost immediately, seeing the policy as a too-wide dragnet that would encourage racial profiling.
But the most recent wave of resistance is not driven by ideology or a philosophical belief that the detainers are a wrongheaded policy. Instead, most sheriffs are simply wary of being sued and are imploring the federal government to come up with clearer policies that will withstand legal scrutiny.
In Los Angeles, as in San Diego, the sheriff’s department has had federal immigration agents in its jails for more than a decade, monitoring the rolls for people with a history of immigration violations.
And while both departments have recently stopped honoring the immigration detainers, Los Angeles is allowing federal agents to look in advance at the list of inmates being released, enabling immigration officials to plan ahead to take in those who could be deported.
Every weekday, twice a day, a bus takes anywhere between a handful and dozens of inmates from the county jail to federal facilities just a few blocks away.
“We’ve always said to them: ‘These are the inmates. If there is anyone you want to talk to, you can do that,’ ” said Chief Eric Parra, who oversees the Los Angeles jails. “If a person comes to jail for a crime, they are there for a reason, so I don’t see what the problem is for us to notify immigration officials. If they haven’t done anything wrong, they have nothing to worry about.”
In San Bernardino County, Calif., where undocumented immigrants make up roughly 6 percent of the population, the sheriff’s department decided to stop abiding by federal detainer requests within weeks of the ruling in Oregon.
Last year, an average of 110 inmates a month were turned over to federal immigration agents. Now, that number is zero.
“Until there is a clearly legally binding decision that outlines the legality of the detainers and what is needed to honor them, we really do not see any reason we should open ourselves up to potential lawsuits,” said Cpl. Lolita Harper, the department’s Hispanic community liaison. “Our decision has certainly been embraced by the immigration activists, but that really wasn’t what this was about at all.”