Los Angeles Bucks Federal Government on Secure Communities

PHOTO: BacaNeon Tommy/Flickr
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in a January 2011 photo.

When suspected undocumented immigrants are booked for low-level crimes in Los Angeles, they will not be held for immigration authorities, according to an announcement by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Sheriff Lee Baca said that the department hopes to have a formal policy in place by the end of the year, and plans to work with the Los Angeles City Council in drafting it.

The news could have reverberations beyond Los Angeles, since the decision limits the reach of Secure Communities, a contentious federal immigration program.

Whenever someone is booked through a jail, their fingerprints are sent to a federal database as part of the program. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can then issue a hold on the arrestee, asking local police to keep the person in custody pending the arrival of an agent.

Secure Communities, which was rolled out in 2008, is already implemented in 97 percent of jurisdictions across the country. Some municipalities and public officials, however, have objected to the program, on the grounds that it erodes public trust.

In recent months, California has been a flashpoint in the national discussion over Secure Communities.

In October, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the Trust Act, a bill that would have limited state participation in the program. Although he opposes some aspects of Secure Communities -- such as forcing local officials to detain people for minor offenses -- he wrote at the time of the veto that the bill was too broad in the types of criminals it would impact.

With legislation stalled, California Attorney General Kamala Harris took action on Tuesday against a program that she said "has not held up to what it aspired to be," telling local authorities that they did not have to comply with it.

Harris cited statistics that showed 28 percent of those targeted for deportation were not criminals. And the number of non-criminal deportations hasn't changed much since the Obama administration vowed in 2011 to focus on serious criminal offenders, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Sheriff Baca's announcement came only a day after Harris' and, in making that move, the sheriff reversed his position. He had previously opposed the Trust Act.

"The sheriff is grateful for the attorney general's opinion," Steve Whitmore, a sheriff's office spokesperson, told ABC/Univision. "It clarified an otherwise confusing debate."