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Kamala Harris' comments on Secure Communities face scrutiny

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris has gone on the record to challenge Secure Communities, a collaboration between local and federal law enforcement. Harris explained that the program confuses sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys around California, who were led to believe they needed to turn over any and all undocumented immigrants they arrest to federal law enforcement in detentions known as “ICE holds.”

“Essentially, they have the right to make a decision based on their belief and discretion and what’s best for public safety for their community," said Harris. "And the federal government cannot compel local law enforcement to honor ICE holds.”

Within a day, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca responded by announcing that his department would enact measures by the end of the year that would keep some undocumented immigrants, arrested for low-level crimes, from transfer to federal immigration.

“This is the kind of decision that should not, in the State of California, be left to local discretion,” argued Tom Saenz, president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. While he’s pleased with Harris’ and Baca’s response to ICE holds, Saenz argued that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement should consider doing away with the Secure Communities program—for good.

“We need to ensure that the State of California has a uniform commitment to ensuring that peaceful migrants are not removed as a result of what may be an unconstitutional arrest, or an arrest for what amounts to a minor infraction or a minor misdemeanor, at best,” he said. 

Saenz and others contend that the Secure Communities program has led to the deportation of thousands of undocumented immigrants in California with minor or no criminal backgrounds.

But Joe Guzzardi, with Californians for Population Stabilization, disagreed. He said California’s attorney general underestimates the success of a federal enforcement program that has deported thousands of criminals.

“I think I would have preferred if she had indicated support for the program, rather than leaving it in the hands of the individual law enforcement officers," he argued. "Because I think the program is worthwhile and has been largely effective. I take that as a move in the wrong direction.”

Guzzardi doesn’t believe the rest of the country will adopt Harris’ position against Secure Communities. That’s because he said California tends toward a more liberal stance on immigration issues than many other states.

Representatives of conservative and Republican organizations in the state that had previously expressed support for Secure Communities did not respond to interview requests for this story.