DUBLIN -- Joining a national trend of resisting the Obama administration's deportation dragnet, the sheriffs of Alameda and Contra Costa counties said they are immediately releasing all inmates whose sole reason for being held is their immigration status.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes about 1,000 requests to Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail each year to hand over immigrants arrested on other charges and suspected of being in the country illegally, but "now we won't be honoring any of them," Sheriff Greg Ahern said in an interview Wednesday. "We're not going to be honoring the ICE holds unless they're backed by the order of a judge."

Joining a national trend of resisting the Obama administration’s deportation dragnet, the sheriffs of Alameda and Contra Costa counties said they are
Joining a national trend of resisting the Obama administration's deportation dragnet, the sheriffs of Alameda and Contra Costa counties said they are immediately releasing all inmates whose sole reason for being held is their immigration status.

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston said Wednesday he implemented an identical order last week. San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks is contemplating a similar policy but plans to allow for case-by-case exceptions for immigrants who "pose significant public safety risks."

Ahern had pleasantly surprised immigrant advocates earlier this year with an order that freed many immigrants by preventing federal agents from picking up all but the most serious criminal convicts. His new rule, however, goes farther.

"All immigrants currently being held based on an immigration detainer will be released without delay," Alameda County Sheriff's Capt. Colby Staysa wrote in a Wednesday morning memorandum to jail staff.


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Staysa made clear "this does not include inmates with pending criminal cases that would normally be held for further criminal proceedings."

The new policy marks a complete turnaround for Ahern. As president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, the Republican sheriff had led the legislative fight last year to block a plan to shut ICE agents out of jails. He lost that battle when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Trust Act in the fall, limiting the state's cooperation with the federal program known as Secure Communities that has deported tens of thousands of people after flagging their fingerprints. But the state law also gave sheriffs the discretion of continuing to hand over immigrants to ICE if they had been charged or convicted of the most serious crimes.

Ahern will no longer be using such discretion. Neither will Livingston, the Contra Costa sheriff, who said Wednesday that top immigration officials now acknowledge that immigration holds "are not mandatory as a matter of law."

"This is great news, really great news," said Cinthya Muñoz, co-chairwoman of Alameda County United in Defense of Immigrant Rights. "This means everybody's rights to due process are restored."

Both of the East Bay sheriffs said their new policies are partly a response to an April court ruling in Oregon. A federal judge there found that the Clackamas County Jail violated an immigrant woman's constitutional rights by holding her without probable cause at the request of federal agents who sought to deport her.

That ruling worried jailers along the West Coast who did not want to be found liable in similar cases. Sheriffs in several Oregon counties began refusing to keep people detained for immigration reasons. Santa Clara County already refused to keep deportable immigrants unless the federal government paid the costs of their detention. San Francisco County refuses to hand over all but a select few convicts, and other Northern California counties have been following suit in recent months.

Ahern had already sharply curtailed the detention of suspected illegal immigrants with his Jan. 1 order.

After years of keeping everyone the federal government asked him to hold, Alameda County's sheriff honored only about 18 percent of the ICE requests he received from the beginning of the year to March 7. Of 173 attempted immigration holds, just 32 inmates were released to the federal government. Another 130 were released to the community, other jails or state prison; and 11 were still in custody pending criminal cases.

The January order complied with the Trust Act, but it also went beyond it by refusing to hand over immigrants merely accused of serious felony crimes, only those convicted of them. It also refused to hand over immigrants convicted of most misdemeanors, with exceptions made for sex offenders and arsonists.

Ahern has now dropped those exceptions. Public defenders who represent indigent clients celebrated the move, arguing that the ICE holds lead to deporting people who already served their time in the criminal justice system.

"The cooperation between immigration enforcement and criminal enforcement has meant a lot of devastation for a lot of families," said Raha Jorjani, an immigration attorney for the Alameda County Office of the Public Defender. "We've had to deal with that devastation for many, many years."

Jorjani described the sheriff's order as "very wise" and the latest example of "a national trend moving toward refusal to cooperate with ICE."