Far fewer immigrants arrested by California law enforcement are being turned over to federal authorities for deportation since a new state law went into effect in January.
The law was pushed by immigrant advocates and directs law enforcement agencies to more quickly release those without serious criminal records rather than hold them so federal officials can take them into custody for deportation proceedings.
Already, according to a review by The Associated Press, the new law appears to be having a big impact in slowing deportations at a time when President Barack Obama is looking to ease immigration enforcement policies nationwide and appease immigrant advocates who say his administration has been too tough.
Until now, California has accounted for a third of deportations under U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement's Secure Communities program, which screens the fingerprints of arrestees for potential immigration violations.
While it was expected the state law known as the Trust Act would reduce the number of people held for possible deportation, it wasn't clear how significant the drop would be.
Since sheriff's departments are responsible for most bookings, the AP surveyed those agencies in 23 counties responsible for most of California's deportations under the program.
Not all supplied data for the first two months of this year, but among the 15 that did, there was a 44 percent drop, from 2,984 people to 1,660. Those 15 counties included four of the five largest in the state — Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino. Orange County could not provide 2013 data because officials do not keep paperwork on this issue for more than a year.
“It suggests that before the Trust Act went into effect, at least in California, Secure Communities was having a most significant impact on relatively minor criminal offenders, as opposed to the gang bangers the president was saying were being targeted,” said Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis school of law and an immigration law expert.
While most counties appear to be complying with the law, some sheriffs' departments do not appear to have adopted policies to put it into action when the year began.
Angela Chan, senior staff attorney at San Francisco-based civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said advocates have received reports of about a dozen instances where people should have been released under the new law but weren't.
“There is inconsistency, and that is something we're working on,” she said. “This is a law they have to follow.”
Secure Communities has led to more than 300,000 deportations since October 2008. The program has immigration agents screen the fingerprints of arrestees and ask local law enforcement to hold for 48 hours those they want to deport until they can pick them up and take them to a detention facility.
Touted by supporters as a way to identify and deport those who have committed serious crimes, the program also has led to people with relatively minor infractions being sent back to their home countries.
Under the Trust Act, immigrants facing trial on serious criminal charges or with serious criminal records can be held on immigration grounds, but those charged with lesser crimes are released on bail or after serving time, just like Americans.
The law specifies which crimes are considered serious so that wherever someone is arrested the treatment is supposed to be largely the same, though some counties may choose not to honor immigration holds, such as Santa Clara.
In passing the legislation, California joined Connecticut and more than a dozen jurisdictions including Cook County, Ill., and Newark, N.J., in declining requests for immigration holds. State lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering similar legislation.
ICE declined to comment. The agency is evaluating the impact of the Trust Act.
Thomas Homan, ICE's executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations, told a congressional committee in March that laws like California's are having an effect.
“It takes that leverage away from us,” Homan said, adding that he'd rather have his agents “arrest these people in a safe setting than be on the street looking for them, especially for the ones that have a significant public safety threat conviction.”
ICE officials can pick up people arrested in California on minor violations, but must do so upon their release. That is much harder to coordinate and ICE agents don't have the resources to get to every jail to pick up every arrestee.
“We can't stop them from taking anyone if they're here,” said Cmdr. John Ingrassia of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. “We're just not going to hold them.”
The AP survey showed county-by-county disparities in the year-to-year percentage reduction of people held, from 3 percent in San Luis Obispo to 93 percent in San Francisco, which last year passed a local law that restricts the use of immigration holds even further.
Los Angeles, which handled the most cases, fell from 1,143 last year to 818 in the first two months of 2014, a 28 percent decline. San Diego was second in overall cases handled but dropped 58 percent, from 426 to 180.
Immigration law experts said it's too soon to pinpoint a reason for the variation. Potential factors include a delay in some counties implementing the law and different arrest priorities and practices among the agencies, immigration experts said.
In Sacramento County, Martin Del Agua was arrested in February for investigation of drunken and disorderly conduct after deputies went to his home to address a neighbor's complaint about loud music, and was later placed on an immigration hold, sheriff's officials said.
Del Agua's lawyer says the arrest was baseless, and notes he was never charged and should have been released the same day. The 37-year-old Mexican, a landscaper and father of two, was released two days later after his wife and lawyer challenged his detention, he said.
Sheriff's officials acknowledged the arrest occurred before the department developed a Trust Act policy.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern is president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, which opposed the Trust Act. He estimated the number of people in his county booked into jails and turned over to ICE has fallen about 70 percent this year.
Ahern expressed concern about who is being freed. “Common sense will tell you people who are violating the law and taken into custody many times are responsible for unrelated crimes,” he said.