Berkeley City Council decides to stop local detainment of undocumented immigrants

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Berkeley City Council made an unexpected move at its Tuesday meeting by unanimously voting to revoke a policy requiring Berkeley Police Department to hold undocumented immigrants in the local jail by request of the federal government.

Under the originally proposed policy change — which the council did not approve — brought to the council by Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan, the city would comply with detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for undocumented immigrants who had a previous conviction for a serious and violent felony and then had been arrested for another serious and violent felony.

Berkeley Police Department previously detained and transported about one to two people per month to ICE, according to information obtained through a Public Records Act request by the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley. Under the revised policy brought Tuesday to the council, Meehan said this number would be lower. Because of the City Council’s actions, this number will now be zero.

Secure Communities, a program within ICE, was developed to identity and enforce action to remove “individuals who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by the severity of their crime, their criminal history, and other factors,” according to the U.S. Immigration website.

When the police department has an interaction that involves taking a suspect’s fingerprints, these fingerprints are transmitted  and ultimately end up in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement database, said Sharon Adams, attorney with the National Lawyers Guild and member of the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley.

If there is a question about the subject’s immigration status, ICE can ask Berkeley to detain the person, whereby he or she may then be transported to ICE and detained, Adams said.

The immigrant detainer policy was previously reviewed at the Sept. 18 council meeting, but concerns from groups such as the ACLU and the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley, as well as confusion about the policy’s restrictions, led to a delay until the Oct. 30 meeting.

While the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley and the ACLU stated their overall goal was to reduce enforcement of all immigration detainers, both wrote letters to specifically advocate that the City Council eliminate enforcement detainers for juveniles, who they said should not be held to the same standards as adults facing deportation.

A press release by George Lippman, chair of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, stated that the Oct. 30 meeting “will address the specific issue of how minors are treated by the policies.”

Instead, the meeting re-evaluated the city’s policy in the larger context of Berkeley’s current stances and opinions on immigration.

Meehan said the revised policy was much more restrictive than previous iterations and felt the policy had kept in mind public safety.

“It’s been a long process,” Meehan said. “We worked for a policy that we believed (the council) would support.”

Meehan said the cases in which ICE would deal with juveniles were minimal but added that, in a few cases, the policy allowed the police department to retain individuals who could be dangerous but who, under normal circumstances, would have been released.

This comment, among other issues, led to the council’s decision to remove the policy.

“We are basically throwing out the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty,” said Bill of Rights Defense Committee member Nadia Kayyali. “We are holding them on their immigration status.”

Council members cited concerns that the fundamental ideas of the policy encroached on a person’s human liberties and that current laws in the justice system for arrests and detaining individuals were already in place. By eliminating the policy, council members said they were creating an “immigration-blind” policy that was more in line with other actions the council has taken.

Berkeley, argued concerned citizens, has already established itself as a city of refuge for undocumented immigrants.

“The City Council passed the resolution to Reaffirm the City of Refuge prohibiting city departments from using city resources to assist or cooperate with any Department of Homeland Security investigation, detention or arrest procedures,” said Mayor Tom Bates in a May 2008 press release, following ICE raids in Berkeley and Oakland.

While supporters of the council’s motion not to honor the ICE detainers called the vote “amazing” and the “best policy in the country,” its decision did not completely eliminate the detainer holds.

After leaving the Berkeley holding jail, a time phase Meehan said was minimal, suspects are transported to the county jail or juvenile hall. Both these places honor current ICE detainment requests, according to Kayyali.

But for the one to two people who were previously affected by this system at the Berkeley jail each month, this is life-changing, she said.

“This is exactly what we wanted,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin at the meeting.

Meehan said Berkeley Police Department will be implementing the new policy very soon and said he does not expect any pushback from ICE.

“They don’t have any say in what the local governments do at the local level,” Meehan said. “It’s not required for us to participate.”

Chloe Hunt covers crime. Contact her at [email protected]