Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Friday that the Baltimore City Detention Center will no longer automatically honor requests from the federal government to hold immigrants for deportation — making the state-run jail one of a relative handful in the country to take a more discerning approach on such requests.
The move is intended to reduce deportations of immigrants who do not have criminal records under a federal program called Secure Communities.
The program, run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is supposed to identify repeat and violent offenders for deportation. But a Baltimore Sun analysis this year found that more than 40 percent of those deported in Maryland had no prior criminal record — far higher than the national average.
Baltimore joins California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia and others in reviewing requests from ICE to hold immigrants for up to 48 hours beyond when they would ordinarily be released.
Advocates say such "detainer" requests are often filed on immigrants who have deep ties in the community and no criminal record.
Under the new policy, which begins immediately, Baltimore will honor the requests only in cases in which an immigrant has been charged with or convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors or a "serious" misdemeanor — roughly those that Secure Communities was originally intended to target.
Those wanted only for immigration violations are to be released from the jail once they have satisfied the requirements of their pending charge.
"We will focus our efforts on complying with ICE detainers when there is an actual threat to the public's safety," the governor said. "No family should be ripped apart because the Republican Congress can't come to the table and reach a reasonable compromise on comprehensive immigration reform."
The decision is a significant step for O'Malley, who is considering a run for president in 2016.
The Democratic governor had received praise from advocates for signing a law in 2011 to allow immigrants in this country without legal documents to attend state colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates, and for backing a measure last year to let them apply for drivers licenses.
The head of the state's largest immigrant-rights group applauded O'Malley's announcement Friday.
"Martin O'Malley exemplifies the best principles of great leaders — honoring diversity, taking leadership when others fail, and executing decisive action when needed," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland.
Opponents said the move could allow immigrants who have criminal backgrounds to be set free rather than being turned over to ICE for further investigation. They said O'Malley's decision will make it harder for the federal government to enforce immigration laws.
Those affected, critics say, broke the law by entering the United States illegally in the first place.
"It has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with obstructing enforcement of immigration laws," said Jessica M. Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies. The Washington-based think tank supports tighter immigration controls.
"Marylanders should be outraged that Governor O'Malley has put the interests of immigration scofflaws ahead of their legitimate interest in having immigration laws enforced, which protects jobs and public safety," she said.
Under Secure Communities, immigration officials access the fingerprints of everyone who is arrested, anywhere in the country, be it for murder or driving without a license. The Department of Homeland Security checks those prints against a database of people known to be in the country illegally.
When Department of Homeland Security computers turn up a match, federal agents ask the local jail to hold the immigrant for up to 48 hours beyond the time he or she would otherwise be released so a pickup can be arranged.
Under U.S. law, immigration violations are often civil matters, not criminal offenses.
ICE officials have pointed to cases in which the Secure Communities program has identified criminals, and they have said repeatedly that the agency's priority remains repeat and violent offenders.
In response to O'Malley's announcement, the agency released a statement Friday saying it "will continue to work cooperatively with law enforcement partners throughout Maryland as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals and others who are public safety threats."
O'Malley's decision follows an exchange of letters with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson after The Sun published its articles.
The governor wrote Johnson in February seeking an explanation for Maryland's high numbers. In a separate letter to Johnson on Friday, the governor wrote that his "concerns about ICE's enforcement priorities are undiminished."
Most counties in Maryland honor the ICE requests.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has concluded that compliance is optional. His office wrote in October that federal rules allow "state and local jurisdictions to exercise discretion when determining how to respond to individual detainers."
The General Assembly considered legislation this year to delineate when a jurisdiction could honor the request and when it would be required to release an immigrant. The O'Malley administration did not take a position on the bill, which failed to advance.
O'Malley's move is limited to the Baltimore jail, which the state manages, but the decision opens the door to county officials in Maryland.
Sirine Shebaya, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who has followed the issue closely, said the decision could set an important precedent for the rest of the state.
"This is a huge step forward that we hope will lead other counties to follow suit as we continue to advocate for the enactment of a similar policy statewide," she said.
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Officials in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Prince George's counties either could not be reached late Friday for comment or were not immediately prepared to respond.
Unlike warrants, immigration detainers are not signed by judges and meet no standard of probable cause — and several federal courts have started to look at them critically. A federal judge in Oregon ruled last week that the detainers violate the Fourth Amendment, prompting several jurisdictions there to announce that they would no longer honor them.
O'Malley's decision comes as hope has dwindled that Congress will pass legislation this year to broadly address an immigration system that advocates and critics alike describe as "broken."
President Barack Obama has instructed Johnson to review immigration enforcement policies and suggest ways to make them "more humane."
Democrats are scrambling ahead of the midterm elections to ease concerns from some Hispanic groups that the Obama administration has not done enough to stem the deportations of immigrants who could qualify for legal residency under a bipartisan immigration overhaul approved by the Senate last year.