WASHINGTON - Inmates wanted for deportation when they are released from federal prison will be turned over to U.S. immigration authorities rather than local law enforcement agencies with outstanding warrants, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Wednesday.
The policy change comes less than a year after the fatal shooting of Kate Steinle, 32, in San Francisco by an immigrant who was on the streets after local police ignored a request from federal authorities to hold him for deportation proceedings.
The change announced by Lynch in testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee calls for the Bureau of Prisons to first give Immigration and Customs Enforcement the option to take inmates facing deportation into custody. She said local law enforcement agencies could still get the immigrant for prosecution on other crimes, "but we would have to have assurances that ICE would also then be able to get the individual back."
Steinle was shot by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez as she walked on a pier with her father. Lopez-Sanchez, who had been deported five times, was sent to San Francisco after being released from federal prison because local authorities had a warrant. They decided not to prosecute him and released him.
Lopez-Sanchez has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges. He said the shooting was accidental.
The case focused attention on immigrant-friendly communities with policies calling for local authorities to not cooperate with federal immigration officials.
San Francisco's newly elected sheriff, Vicki Hennessy, said she needs details on how the policy will be enforced. Specifically, Hennessy wants to know which type of inmates federal immigration officials plan on picking up. Hennessy was elected in November and sworn in last month.
Rep. John Culberson (R., Texas) said the change announced by Lynch along with increased pressure on cities and counties to cooperate with ICE to access federal grant funding is critical.
"Had that policy been in effect last summer Kate Steinle would still be alive," said Culberson, who chairs the subcommittee.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants tougher enforcement of immigration laws, welcomed the change but said the challenge is ensuring that suspects don't evade prosecution for serious crimes because they're being deported. Local prosecutors will need to be forceful when they want someone turned over, Vaughan said.
Jessica Bansal, litigation director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said she didn't think the shift would affect too many cases, but it would require better communication between those working in the immigration and criminal justice systems.
ICE had no immediate comment.