Mercury News editorial: Santa Clara County's new immigration policy needs watching

Mercury News Editorial
Posted: 10/26/2011 06:09:06 PM PDT
Updated: 10/26/2011 07:08:45 PM PDT

The controversy over Santa Clara County's new policy on working with immigration authorities -- or rather, not working with them -- has gone nuclear.

To hear some county supervisors and the county executive rip into Sheriff Laurie Smith and District Attorney Jeff Rosen, you'd think the two were wing nuts out to deport anybody who looks at them sideways. They are far from it -- but their unexpected opposition to the new county immigration policy did come annoyingly late: Both knew about the proposal more than a week before the board of supervisors approved it, but neither spoke up until Mercury News reporter Tracy Seipel called them after last week's vote. They fear the policy will result in dangerous people being released into the community instead of being deported.

Everybody needs to stand down, put the verbal nukes back in their silos and discuss this rationally. The policy is in place, so let's track the results and reassess it in four or six months. If Smith and Rosen are right, the board can amend it.

The immediate issue is whether the county should honor requests from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, to hold prisoners for its agents after the county has concluded the cases. Rosen and, more reluctantly, Smith had gone along with an earlier proposal to honor the ICE holds for prisoners accused of serious or violent crimes but to release minor, one-time offenders. Supervisor George Shirakawa shifted the plan to refusing all ICE holds unless the agency agreed to pay the costs -- which it won't.

The underlying problem is that ICE's misnamed Secure Communities program aims to engage local police in immigration enforcement. This has undermined immigrant communities' trust in the police, making people afraid to report crime as a witness or even a victim. It's an atmosphere that makes everyone, citizen or not, less safe. Advocates of the new county policy say public safety will improve when people no longer associate local officers with deportation.

Most violent offenders end up in state prisons, which turn them over to ICE when sentences are complete. But some do stay in the county. And the new policy is likely to mean more suspects will get out on bail. In some cases, such as gangsters, this is indeed worrisome. It's one thing to track.

County officials and community activists are accusing Smith and Rosen of grandstanding and fear mongering. We don't see it. Rosen in particular has been sensitive to immigrant concerns: He has implemented an enlightened policy in his office to consider whether a plea bargain might trigger deportation, which would be a disproportionate punishment for some crimes. As the county's top elected law enforcement officials, Rosen and Smith have standing to comment on the ICE policy and an obligation to speak their minds.

We just wish they'd spoken them sooner. The policy might not have changed, but the unseemly anger in its wake could have been avoided.