Updated: 11/01/2012 10:28:59 AM PDT
By Judith Scherr

BERKELEY -- The city's police will no longer hand prisoners over to federal immigration authorities under an action approved Tuesday night.

The City Council voted unanimously not to respond to Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to take charge of Berkeley prisoners suspected of violating federal immigration law.

"To our knowledge, this is the strongest language (opposing the policy) in the country," said George Lippman, chairman of the city's Peace and Justice Commission.

In adopting the new policy, the council turned down a proposal by Police Chief Michael Meehan that would have raised the bar for turning suspects over to ICE. Meehan wanted police to limit compliance with ICE requests to cases where the jailed suspect -- either an adult or a minor -- was accused of a serious felony and also had been convicted of a serious crime in the past.

The ICE program rejected by the council, known as Secure Communities, identifies immigrants in U.S. jails who can be deported under immigration law. The program depends on information shared among local and federal law enforcement agencies.

When Berkeley police make an arrest, they fingerprint the suspect and send the prints to the county sheriff's office, which then forwards them to the FBI.

The FBI sends the prints to ICE, which determines, through an automated system, whether to ask Berkeley police for custody of the suspect. ICE then expedites deportation of many of these suspects.

Councilman Jesse Arreguin said handing suspects over to ICE goes against principles long established in Berkeley. "The City Council's been on record for two years, raising concerns about Secure Communities," he said, pointing to council resolutions asking the state to opt out of the program and the Obama administration to put an end to it.

"This is all consistent with the City of Refuge policy that says that our city officials and police officers won't be involved in the enforcement of federal immigration law," Arreguin said.

Nadia Kayyali of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, addressed the council, arguing that turning over suspects to ICE "throws out the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty."

Berkeley's participation in Secure Communities over the past two years, has resulted in turning over to ICE an average of two people each month. These are often people police have picked up for crimes such as public intoxication or minor drug or parole violations, according to National Lawyer's Guild Attorney Sharon Adams, who obtained the information through a Freedom of Information request.

Police Chief Meehan proposed the more restrictive policy, so that people suspected of low level crimes would not be sent to ICE and face deportation, but he defended the idea that Berkeley should cooperate with ICE with respect to suspects accused of serious crimes.

"My own opinion is that law enforcement should not be party to immigration enforcement, with the exception of dangerous people" he said. "That's why we've tailored this policy so narrowly. My responsibility as chief is to make sure ... that our efforts are focused on public safety. And I don't think it's in the interest of public safety to release someone who has shown a propensity to go out and hurt somebody, when we have the option to prevent that."

Council members pointed out that, in the end, the policy would be mostly symbolic, since suspects generally spend little time in Berkeley jails and are quickly moved to county facilities, where the sheriff fully cooperates with federal immigration requests.

But Lippman and other activists at the council meeting said they're already working on the county level to change policies there. "Berkeley won't stand alone," Lippman said.

Berkeley turns cold shoulder to ICE - San Jose Mercury News