Feds, state clash: Does new state immigrant policy pose public safety risk?

Washington – The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency blasted a new state policy on when Connecticut’s prisons will detain undocumented immigrants, saying it poses a risk to public safety and could release dangerous criminals into the community. The Malloy administration disagreed.

The state Department of Correction notified ICE last week in a memo from interim Commissioner Scott Semple that, as of Dec. 15,  it will cease to honor ICE detention resquests and would hold for deportation only immigrants convicted of a violent felony or those subject to a court order.

A spokesman for ICE issued a statement Monday accusing the state of endangering public safety.

“The release of serious criminal offenders to the community, rather than to ICE custody for removal, undermines ICE’s ability to protect public safety and impedes ICE from enforcing the nation’s immigration laws,” said a statement from Daniel Modricker, a regional spokesman for ICE. “While some aliens may be arrested on minor criminal charges, they may also have more serious criminal backgrounds.”

Some jurisdictions that have stopped honoring ICE’s detainers have released dangerous criminals who have gone on to commit serious and violent crimes, Modricker said, rather than being turned over to ICE and placed in removal proceedings. In his speech on immigration last week, President Obama said he wanted to deport “felons and not families.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a close ally of the Obama administration, downplayed the conflict with federal immigration officials.

“We notified them of the changes we were making,” Malloy told The Mirror. “There’s been some court cases that could lead us to being sued. We’re making the policy compliant with recent case law. My job is to do that.”

Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s top adviser on criminal justice issues, said that the state was responding to a string of federal decisions, notably an Oregon case in which a federal judge found that jailing a defendant solely on the basis of an ICE detention request violated the woman’s due-process rights.

By issuing a detainer, ICE requests that a law enforcement agency notify ICE before releasing a subject and keep him or her in custody for up to 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, to allow ICE to take custody.  Three states—California, Colorado and Connecticut—have adopted the same policy of noncompliance, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

In addition to those states, county officials have adopted similar policies. In most states, pre-trial prisoners are held in county jails, not state prisons. Connecticut has no county government.

Lawlor said the state policy poses no danger to public safety. All criminal defendants, whether they are citizens or undocumented, are subject to a bail commissioner’s evaluation as to flight risk or a danger to the public, he said.

The Malloy administration’s action takes the state one step further than most others in shielding the undocumented from deportation. It was cheered by immigrant advocates in the state.

In July of 2013, Connecticut became the first state to enact a version of the TRUST Act, a law that prevents state authorities from holding undocumented residents for immigration officials if they haven’t committed serious crimes.

The state implemented the policy to settle a court case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s previous policy of honoring all ICE detainers.

John Jairo Lugo of Unidad Latina en Acción said Semple’s actions “improves upon the TRUST Act.”

“It means that people whose only issue is being a victim of unjust policies will now be protected from ICE’s overreaching quota,” Lugo said.

Department of Correction spokeswoman Karen Martucci said her agency “routinely reviews its policies.”

Martucci said concerns about public safety drove the latest policy change.

“Our concern was the full enforcement of ICE detainers would deter the immigrant community from reporting crimes,” she said.

Two years ago, Malloy riled ICE when he informed the agency Connecticut would no longer participate in “Secure Communities,” a federal program to identify potentially deportable immigrants by providing immigration agents with fingerprints collected at local jails.

Sometimes, federal agents would ask local law enforcement officials to hold inmates believed to be in the country illegally beyond the length of their jail terms so that they could be transferred to federal custody.

Malloy said he would turn over these inmates on a case-by-case basis. Other states and local communities also defied Washington over the program, which was criticized by immigration advocates who said it eroded immigrant communities’ trust in police and often resulted in the deportations of those accused of only minor infractions.

Last week, Obama said he would scrap “Secure Communities” as part of his immigration overhaul. He said federal agents should focus on deporting “felons, not families,” and announced a new initiative, the Priority Enforcement Program, which would target only those convicted of serious crimes.

Obama said he would also provide the opportunity for millions of undocumented aliens to apply for provisional legal status. But to qualify, an immigrant must have no criminal record, belong to a “mixed family” whose members include U.S. citizens or legal residents and who have lived in the United States for at least five years.

Recent immigrants and those with criminal records or no relatives with legal status will continue to be deported, and ICE will continue to ask states to help the agency by issuing detainers.

Connecticut has a diverse immigrant community with peoples from South America, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and Africa. Many are here legally, but an estimated 55,000 to 100,000 are undocumented.

Mirror Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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