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L.A. County's New Sheriff Announced Reforms to Limit ICE. Immigrant Rights Groups Don't Think They Go Far Enough.

Alex Villanueva says he'll reduce the number of misdemeanors considered grounds for deportation, but will continue to allow ICE contractors to transfer undocumented inmates into ICE custody.
An ICE agent.

ICE agents detain an immigrant on October 14th, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. Recently elected L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced reforms last Friday to limit his department's cooperation with ICE. 

A coalition of Los Angeles immigrant rights groups, many of which championed L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva's long-shot campaign during the mid-term elections last year, wrote in an open letter Monday that he has "betrayed" them in just a few weeks in office by walking back pledges to limit Trump administration Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents' reach in the city.

The letter comes on the heels of Villanueva's announcement last week that his department—the largest such in the nation—was considering reforms to reduce the number of misdemeanors that are considered cause for deportation and to stop the department from publishing inmate release dates on its website—data which is shared with ICE.

While Villanueva's department maintains that ICE agents will no longer be allowed at county jails, it will continue to allow ICE contractors to transfer undocumented inmates into ICE custody.

"Replacing ICE agents with ICE contractors to handle the arrest and transfer of individuals to ICE is a cosmetic difference with the same result," according to the letter, whose top signatory was the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "The voters elected you because of your promise that you would end LASD's facilitation of deportations, but your proposed policy would continue that practice virtually unabated."

Villanueva had been set to unveil broader proposals for changes to how his department interacts with ICE last Friday. He has yet to release that information, and, in its letter Monday, the coalition of immigrant-rights defenders demanded, among other things, that Villanueva stop the transfer of any inmates to ICE altogether. "If you intend to continue ICE transfers and notifications, only do so for serious or violent felony convictions, with a washout period of three years," the letter says.

Immigration experts agree that the proposed changes will not drastically limit ICE involvement in the city. Jean Reisz, a University of Southern California law professor and supervising attorney at the university's immigration clinic, says that the proposal to reduce the numbers of misdemeanors that lead to deportation "may impact non-citizens who are low-level non-violent offenders who would otherwise end up in immigration detention after being arrested for something like a failure to appear or driving on a suspended license or petty theft." But, she adds, declining to publish inmate release dates will do little to stop ICE activity in the city, because "there are other databases available to federal officers where they can obtain criminal information."

The proposals also concerned L.A. sheriffs, who worried, by contrast, that Villanueva's reforms went too far. "Our experience shows that publishing inmate release information helps keep the public and law enforcement safe," says Ron Hernandez, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. "We hope the sheriff will use sound judgment in making sure citizens and officers are not put into dangerous situations as these new policies are implemented."

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Beyond critique of Villanueva's specific proposals, the open letter says that Villanueva has fallen short of his promises to "build trust" with communities that many say are discouraged from cooperating with local law enforcement for fear of deportation.

"Although we believe the practice of ICE notifications and transfers should stop completely and that you made a commitment to do so to voters, you have an opportunity to at least limit this practice to encompass only individuals who have been convicted of violent or serious felonies," the letter says. "Instead, based on the new policy your office was set to announce on February 15th, it is our understanding that your intention is to only tinker with the list of misdemeanor crimes for which former Sheriff McDonnell would transfer individuals to ICE, rather than establish clear bright lines and truly minimize LASD's facilitation of deportations."

Immigrant rights advocates maintain that sweeping changes in the department's practices are needed because, they say, the department should never have had a relationship with ICE in the first place.

"We do not need small steps toward reform, we need a radical realignment of what is the role of the L.A. County Sheriff's department toward the entire community," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles. "This is a law enforcement agency that should have no contact with ICE whatsoever. It is unnecessary for local law enforcement, creates mistrust [that] makes communities less safe, and furthers a false narrative that counters the truth that millions of undocumented immigrants are workers, family members, and people contributing to this diverse city who have no means to adjust their status because of decades of congressional inaction on immigration reform."

While he approves of Villanueva's apparent attempts to restrict cooperations with ICE, Anthony Ng, immigrant rights policy manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, underlines that Villanueva must continue to work with immigrant rights groups to better serve the communities he is charged with protecting.

"As ICE continues to instill fear in the community and tear families apart, it is crucial for the sheriff to stand up against the federal agency," he says. "It is important for Sheriff Villanueva to continue this dialogue with immigrant rights organizations and the community about these efforts."