By Amy Taxin and Elliot Spagat, Associated Press; Lisa Pickoff-White and Mina Kim, KQED

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer guards a group of 116 Salvadorean immigrants that wait to be deported,at Willacy Detention facility in Raymondville, Texas. (Jose Cabeza/AFP/Getty Images)
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer guards a group of 116 Salvadoran immigrants that wait to be deported at Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas. (Jose Cabeza/AFP/Getty Images)

Far fewer immigrants arrested by California law enforcement have been turned over to federal authorities for deportation since the state’s Trust Act went into effect in January. The Trust Act prohibits local police from holding immigrants presumed to be undocumented for federal agents if the immigrants were arrested for minor crimes.

The number of people held for possible deportation dropped by 44 percent during January and February, from 2,984 people to 1,660, according to an Associated Press survey of 15 California counties. Until now, California has accounted for a third of deportations under U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Secure Communities program, which screens the fingerprints of arrestees for potential immigration violations.

“I’m not surprised at all by the size of the drop,” said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and an immigration law expert. “The concern with the federal government’s removal programs has been that low-level criminal offenders have been caught up in the web of the criminal justice system, and are being deported for relatively minor crimes like driving without a license.”

Since sheriff’s departments are responsible for most bookings, the AP surveyed those agencies in 23 counties responsible for most of California’s deportations under the program. Of the 15 departments that responded were four of the five largest in the state: Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino. Orange County could not provide complete 2013 data because officials there do not retain paperwork on this issue for more than 12 months.

The degree to which counties are complying with the Trust Act appears to vary widely. The San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department reported only a 3 percent drop, compared with a 28 percent decline in Los Angeles and a 58 percent decline in San Diego.

The biggest decline, 96 percent, was in San Francisco. Last September, city supervisors passed the Due Process for All law, which stopped city law enforcement from complying with Secure Communities.

Some sheriffs in California have expressed concern that the new law is letting potentially violent offenders go. Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern is president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, which opposed the Trust Act.

“Common sense will tell you people who are violating the law and taken into custody many times are responsible for unrelated crimes,” Ahern said.

But Johnson said that it’s hard to say whether people arrested for relatively minor infractions, like trespassing, are likely to become criminal offenders.

“I think the fear that some people have expressed is exaggerated and only loosely based to the facts,” Johnson said.

Nationwide deportations increase

Meanwhile, a New York Times analysis of internal government records shows that since President Barack Obama took office, two-thirds of deportation cases involve people who have committed minor infractions.

The demographics of those being removed today are not all that different from those removed over the years. Most are Mexican men under the age of 35. But many of their circumstances have changed.

The records show the largest increases were in deportations involving illegal immigrants whose most serious offense was listed as a traffic violation, including driving under the influence. Those cases more than quadrupled from 43,000 during the last five years of President George W. Bush’s administration to 193,000 during the five years Mr. Obama has been in office. In that same period, removals related to convictions for entering or re-entering the country illegally tripled under Mr. Obama to more than 188,000.

The Obama administration used arrests for small infractions to show that it was making large strides in deportation, Johnson told KQED’s Mina Kim.

“The truth of the matter is quite different, and suggests that relatively small-time criminals have been caught up in the system,” he said.

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* An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that undocumented immigrants can now secure drivers licenses, in fact that law will take effect next year. Currently, government officials are taking applications.

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