SF Sheriff Wants Out of “Secure Communities”

San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey at press conference. Photo by Jude Joffe-Block

Today, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey announced that he wants to opt out of Secure Communities, a growing federal program that uses digital fingerprints to check the immigration history of everyone booked at local jails.

Earlier this month, KALW reported on how the program run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is already operating in the Bay Area in Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano and Sonoma counties.

San Francisco is slated to join the program on June 1, but Hennessey says Secure Communities will undermine San Francisco’s sanctuary policy. Under the 21-year old city ordinance that was updated last year, city and county employees are restricted from coordinating with federal immigration officers—except in cases mandated by federal law or when law enforcement agencies encounter adults who have been charged with or are convicted of a felony.

Hennessey said that each year his department reports to ICE more than 2,000 foreign-born individuals who are charged with felonies or have previous felony convictions.

But if Secure Communities goes into effect in San Francisco, ICE officials will receive automatic alerts whenever the fingerprints of someone booked at the San Francisco jail reveals they are in the country illegally—regardless of whether they are charged with a felony, misdemeanor or infraction.  Hennessey said he is worried the program could cause immigrants who are booked for minor infractions, such as failing to appear in court after being charged with a routine traffic violation, to face deportation.

“I think we need to guard against ICE widening the net,” said Hennessey at a press conference on the steps of City Hall this morning.

ICE officials have said the point of the program is to identify and deport serious offenders and that they will prioritize those cases.

Congress has allocated $550 million for the program and it is supposed to expand to every jurisdiction in the nation by 2013. Last year, the California State Department of Justice signed an agreement with ICE to cooperate with Secure Communities.

In a letter sent today to state Attorney General Jerry Brown, Hennessey requested assistance in “opting out of participation in Secure Communities,” saying that the program “conflicts with local law.”

If the state is unresponsive to Hennessey’s appeal, he said his agency will have no choice but to continue fingerprinting everyone booked and sending the records to state authorities. “All I can do is ask,” he said.

Seven San Francisco Supervisors have signed on to a non-binding resolution urging local law enforcement agencies to opt out of Secure Communities. Supervisor Eric Mar, who authored the resolution, said the city needs to defend its sanctuary policy, and that police-ICE collaborations could make immigrant residents wary of reporting crime. “It will hurt this trust that has been built over the years,” he said. 

Mayor Gavin Newsom has not expressed concern that the federal program will conflict with local sanctuary policy. His spokesman Tony Winnicker told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that "Sanctuary city policies were never meant to protect criminal behavior.”

But Supervisor David Campos, a co-sponsor of the resolution, called on the Mayor to change his position. Campos said it was contradictory to support sanctuary city policy without condemning Secure Communities. “You can’t have it both ways,” said Campos.