By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police in Los Angeles will no longer hold in jail undocumented immigrants for federal authorities unless a judge requests it, officials said on Monday.
The announcement by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Charlie Beck marks the latest move by officials in California to limit cooperation with the U.S. government in a program that has been a top priority for immigration officials and has helped deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.
The federal government's Secure Communities program was launched in 2008 in partnership with the FBI and local law enforcement to deport unauthorized immigrants who are arrested by police for other offenses.
Under the program, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can ask that detainees suspected of entering the country illegally be held for up to 48 hours extra to give federal immigration authorities more time to take custody of them.
Police in Los Angeles, the second largest U.S. city, have in the past disregarded ICE requests for undocumented immigrants if they were arrested for low-level offenses and had no prior convictions, said police spokesman Lieutenant Andy Neiman.
In future, police will not honor any request to keep in custody jailed immigrants - including those arrested for violent crimes - unless the request comes from a judge, Neiman said.
So far this year, Los Angeles police have received 773 immigrant detention requests from ICE and honored 309 of them, he said.
Los Angeles officials have cited a federal court case in Oregon earlier this year where a judge found local police agencies were vulnerable to civil rights lawsuits for detaining people solely on the basis of an ICE request.
"Now we've gotten clarification from a court, or what we feel is clarification, and we're going to make sure that we are taking the higher road so that we are respecting people's rights as far as their immigration status," Neiman said.
The move by officials in Los Angeles follows a push by various U.S. groups to allow the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country to obtain a pathway to citizenship.
Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress have said such legislation will not advance this year.
"Washington may be stalling when it comes to immigration reform, but it is within our power here in L.A. to make a real, on-the-ground difference in the lives of our residents," Garcetti said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for ICE said in a statement the agency remains committed to working with local law enforcement.
"When law enforcement agencies turn criminals over to ICE rather than releasing them into the community, it enhances public safety and the safety of law enforcement," the statement said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Mohammad Zargham)