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LA County Sheriff Baca's legacy on immigration

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca discusses the federal Secure Communities program during a news conference at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C. in October 2010. Baca, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, has been a controversial figure among immigrant advocates.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca discusses the federal Secure Communities program during a news conference at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C. in October 2010. Baca, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, has been a controversial figure among immigrant advocates.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who announced his pending retirement Tuesday, has had a complicated relationship with immigrants in his jurisdiction during his 15-year tenure.

He's the son of a Mexican-born immigrant mother who once lacked legal status. Yet he's held a hard line on immigration enforcement that has made him a controversial figure among immigrant rights advocates. Baca was a staunch supporter of federal-local immigration enforcement partnerships like Secure Communities, which has contributed to record deportations nationwide, only softening his stance in the last year or so.

Baca, who is 71, announced Tuesday morning that he would not seek a fifth term. He did so on the heels of a scandal over inmate abuse in county jails, with federal criminal charges filed a month ago against 18 current and former deputies. Some of those deputies have been accused of attempting to obstruct an FBI investigation into the department.

Many immigrant rights activists happy to see Baca go

Soon after Baca made his announcement, immigrant advocates began sending out good-riddance messages: "Sheriff Baca has been no friend to the immigrant community," wrote Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles in a statement.

Salas continued by saying that "thousands upon thousands of undocumented families living in Los Angeles County who committed no major offense have been deported and faced years of unscrupulous detentions" due to Baca's embrace of Secure Communities, which allows state and local police to automatically share the fingerprints of immigrants they process with immigration agents. If there is a match, they are asked to detain them for deportation.

Baca was what might be called an early adopter of the federal-local immigration enforcement model. In 2006, two years before Secure Communities was created, Los Angeles County signed on to a voluntary post-9/11 federal program known as 287(g), which essentially deputized local authorities to carry out immigration enforcement duties. In Los Angeles County's case, deputies were trained to screen inmates for immigration status in the jails.

Secure Communities was implemented in Los Angeles County in mid-2009. More than 32,000 immigrants have been deported from L.A. County since then as a result, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That figure includes not only L.A. County referrals to ICE but those from local police as well. An additional 17,500 have been deported as a direct result of the county's 287(g) contract, which continues in force.

Baca held for years that his goal in cooperating with federal immigration agents was the same as the stated goals of Secure Communities and 287(g): to find convicted criminals and get them into the deportation process. He defended 287(g) in an interview with KPCC in 2011:

"They have to be not only arrested for behavior, not ethnicity, or not status, and then the crime itself results in a trial and then a conviction," says Baca. "After the conviction, they have to serve their time. And it’s at that point they are entered into the system."

But since both programs began, large numbers of people deported as a result have not had criminal convictions, or have had only minor misdemeanor convictions.

Softened stance on deportations after AG directive

In California, a backlash among immigrant advocates, some Democratic lawmakers and a handful of sheriffs arguing that these policies undermined immigrant communities' trust in police eventually resulted in a bill known as the Trust Act, which kicked in Jan. 1. The law dictates that state and local police cannot hold immigrants with clean records or straight misdemeanor convictions for deportation at federal agents' request.

Baca began softening his position on Secure Communities about a year before the Trust Act took effect. In December 2012, California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a directive to law enforcement advising them that they weren't legally bound to comply with immigration authorities' requests for deportation holds.

Soon afterward, Baca announced that he'd refrain from turning over immigrants convicted of low-level misdemeanors to ICE.

Lt. Wayne Bilowit, a legislative advocate for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said that Baca's initial support of Secure Communities was grounded in the belief that counties must comply. This, and his desire to get criminals off the streets.

"The reason we supported Secure Communities to begin with was obviously because the problem of repeat high-level criminal offenders that were not in the country legally needed to be resolved," Bilowit said by phone Tuesday. But, he added: "Over the years, Sheriff Baca said he would have liked more flexibility, so we don't inadvertently (deport) people who were placed on hold just because they were placed in custody."

Backed California's Trust Act

The department backed the tightened version of the Trust Act that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last fall. An earlier bill that Brown vetoed in 2012 was amended with input from the governor's office to ensure that only the lowest-level offenders were ineligible for deportation holds.

"With the Trust Act was signed into law, it basically gave us that flexibility, because we would no longer be deporting or having to put the ICE holds on truly low-level offenders," Bilowit said. "We are now directed toward the most serious convictions."

Jorge-Mario Cabrera of CHIRLA said Tuesday that in the year since Baca announced he'd back down on detaining low-level offenders, advocates estimate there's been a slight drop in local Secure Communities referrals to ICE.

But this is anecdotal, he said, because "no one has seen the numbers specifically by month." ICE officials say these numbers aren't readily available, and Baca has resisted efforts to release specific data about who the county refers to ICE. CHIRLA was one of several organizations that sued the county seeking detailed numbers in 2011.

Forged deep relationship with Arab Americans after 9/11

While Baca has been criticized for policies that immigrant advocates say undermine trust in the Sheriff's Department, there's at least one immigrant community that holds the opposite view: Arab Americans, and Muslims in general. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Baca began reaching out to local Muslims, many of whom were fearful of being targeted or discriminated against.

"He was willing to listen to the Muslim community," said Marium Mohiuddin with the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "There has been a lot of partnership and engagement over the years."

Baca initiated a Muslim community affairs unit, as well as a coalition called the Muslim American Homeland Security Congress, based on the idea of building trust between authorities and local Muslims. When Republican Rep. Peter King of New York held his first Congressional hearing in 2011 on the threat of U.S. Muslims becoming radicalized, Baca testified in their defense.

At the time, Hussam Ayloush of the greater L.A.-area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the LA Weekly:

"Where others failed, such as the FBI, has been their inability to see the American Muslim community outside the prism of terrorism," he says. "Baca understands that in order to have a partnership, you have be seen as genuinely concerned about the communities you are entrusted with protecting."

All of which adds to Baca's complex legacy among immigrants: While some will remember him for policies they say undermined their trust in law enforcement, others will remember him for just the opposite.

This story has been updated.