By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California's attorney general said on Tuesday that state and local law enforcement agencies were not required to honor federal immigration detention requests, a declaration welcomed by immigrant rights activists.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, the state's top law enforcement official, said complying with the federal program that helped deport a record 400,000 illegal immigrants last year is voluntary.
Harris is the highest state official to join a handful of officials in major cities in resisting the information-sharing program between federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and local law enforcement, known as "Secure Communities."
Critics have lambasted the program for placing victims of domestic violence in deportation proceedings and deterring immigrants from reporting crimes.
"Several local law enforcement agencies appear to treat immigration detainers, sometimes called 'ICE holds,' as mandatory orders. But immigration detainers are not compulsory. Instead, they are merely requests enforceable at the discretion of the agency holding the individual arrestee," Harris wrote.
The announcement came the day after a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would limit local authorities from honoring detention requests unless those individuals were convicted of a serious or violent felony.
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in September, saying the legislation was "fatally flawed" by exempting individuals who had committed crimes such as child abuse, drug trafficking and selling weapons.
Activists welcomed Harris' announcement, and called for renewed support of the revised bill.
"It simply makes no sense for California to comply with voluntary requests and to fill jails with peaceful immigrants at state expense, in order to fuel a broken, unjust federal deportation system," said Chris Newman, the legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, one of the sponsor's of the bill.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has previously said he does not believe federal detentions requests should apply to illegal immigrants arrested for "low-grade misdemeanor offenses" and similar crimes, and wants his department to refrain from handing over illegal immigrants arrested for such offenses to federal authorities for potential deportation.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker)