A new federal program designed to deport serious criminals or those who pose a threat to public safety is already having an impact in Pima County and Arizona — even as it is being rolled out nationally.

In the midst of court rulings and a refocus on deporting dangerous criminals in the country illegally as they are released from jail, local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are detaining fewer newly released inmates overall.

The total number of people released to ICE from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department is down 20 percent from 2012 to 2014, while the average jail population in Pima County has decreased about 7 percent.

Under the Priority Enforcement Program, which Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced in November, instead of immigration officials asking local jails to hold persons of interest for up to 48 hours, they will now request they be notified before their release in most cases.

The change is part of the dismantling of the Secure Communities program, which had the same goal as the new effort but was widely criticized for sweeping up minor offenders or those charged but never convicted of a crime. It was also subject to lawsuits claiming it violated the Fourth Amendment.

“Its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws,” Johnson wrote in a Nov. 20, 2014, memo announcing the new program.

Come and get them

A series of federal court rulings in recent years have held that local law enforcement entities do not have to abide by detainer requests — and, in fact, could be liable for holding people beyond their release times.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department changed its practice after a district court ruled last year that a county in Oregon violated the Fourth Amendment by relying on an ICE detainer that didn’t provide probable cause that the person could be deported.

Before the ruling, Chief Deputy Chris Nanos said, the Sheriff’s Department would hold inmates for up to 48 hours or until ICE picked up a group of them. “It made sense for efficiency, but it doesn’t make sense for the individual waiting in jail,” he said. “Where is the justice in that?”

Now, jail officials let ICE know when they are going to release someone who has a federal warrant or a request for notification from ICE. If immigration officials want to pick up that person, they need to do so in the time it takes to process the release, which is about two hours.

But different agencies respond in different ways, even within the region.

Cochise — which released 30 people to ICE in 2014 — and Santa Cruz counties said they still hold people for up to 48 hours, although ICE officials often pick people up sooner than that.

In Pinal County, a spokesman said an ICE detention center is about a mile from the jail, which means a very short pick-up time for those ICE has placed a hold on.

San Francisco case

The role local law enforcement agencies play in immigration enforcement is in the spotlight again after a Mexican immigrant who had been deported multiple times and had a criminal record allegedly killed a woman in San Francisco earlier this month.

Authorities there had released him because San Francisco is among roughly 300 cities and counties that don’t honor ICE detainers.

Between January and August 2014, local jails declined ICE detainers on about 1,800 people who were later rearrested, according to an ICE report first obtained by the Center for Immigration Studies, a national group that advocates for immigration reduction.

In another case, a man who had been previously convicted of a felony, and whom was released by ICE while he awaited the outcome of his deportation hearing, is accused in the January murder of 21-year-old QuikTrip clerk in Mesa.

Lawmakers are seeking to address the issue. Arizona Republican U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake introduced a bill last week that would require DHS to detain unauthorized immigrants arrested or convicted of serious crimes and to deport them within 90 days. Arizona Republican U.S. Representatives, including Martha McSally, introduced a House companion bill.

“It’s simply irresponsible to release known criminals into the public because their (immigration) court hearings take years to process,” McCain said in a news release. “Our bill would stop the reckless catch-and-release policies.”

Between 2010 and 2014, 122 people who were released from prison while awaiting deportation trials were later charge with homicides, the release said, citing DHS figures.

Cautious optimism

When local jails book someone, they send their fingerprints to an FBI database to check for a criminal history. Under Secure Communities, and now the Priority Enforcement Program, those fingerprints are forwarded to DHS and run for immigration status.

Since Secure Communities was implemented in Arizona, starting in Pinal County on Dec. 23, 2008, about 35,500 people arrested in the state have been deported. Seventy-seven percent of them come from Maricopa County, which also has the majority of the bookings.

In Arizona, about 37 percent of those deported since the beginning of the program through Feb. 28 of this year were charged or convicted of crimes such as robbery or aggravated assault. Another 30 percent had been charged or convicted of misdemeanor-type crimes.

Through Feb. 28 of this fiscal year though, more than half of those who have been deported were charged or convicted of more serious offenses, compared to 19 percent of those with misdemeanor-type cases, ICE data show.

If the new program is implemented correctly, it can be a significant step in the right direction, said Kate Desormeau, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrant rights project.

“It’s been eight months (since the memo) and we are still waiting to see how the agency rolls it out,” she said. The ACLU will look at things such as the use of detainers and officer training, she said.

Locally, the new program doesn’t change the way agencies operate, officials said.

“Nobody wants to release a person who is violent or a danger to the community,” said India Davis, assistant corrections director at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. “All of us have a direct interest in community safety, but we need to follow the law as well.”

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at 573-4213 or ptrevizo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo