A scene from a November anti-Trump protest in downtown L.A.
A scene from a November anti-Trump protest in downtown L.A.
Brian Feinzimer

L.A. County Sheriff's Silence on Immigration Speaks Volumes

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s silence on the issue of protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation has grown more conspicuous lately. That silence has been amplified by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Charlie Beck’s recent statements reassuring the city’s immigrant communities that police in Los Angeles are not responsible for carrying out a more draconian enforcement of federal immigration law promised by President-elect Donald Trump.

Sheriff McDonnell has issued no such statement.

“His silence now does not surprise us, but it is reprehensible nonetheless,” says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, communications director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “Right now, the Sheriff’s Department is the agency that is most culpable in apprehending immigrants and leading them into the hands of ICE.”

At issue are the large number of undocumented immigrants living in the unincorporated areas of East and South L.A. and the Valley.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a plan on Tuesday to protect the data and identities of undocumented county residents who may be adversely affected by changes to federal immigration policy. Among several measures in the plan, it requests that McDonnell report back to a public meeting of the board within 30 days on his department’s policies of cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"[The Sheriff's Department] has contact with more undocumented immigrants than the LAPD," Cabrera says. "The concern is that they can be stopped for a minor infraction, but the individual then is forwarded to a county jail where they need to post bail but can't. And that's when ICE gets ahold of them."

Sheriff Jim McDonnell
Sheriff Jim McDonnell
LA County Sheriff's Dept

Immigrant advocates in L.A. have long warned that local law enforcement risks losing the trust of the city’s multiethnic communities if it is perceived as the local arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sheriff McDonnell has had his differences with the more liberal supervisors on the county board on this issue. Last year, supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl were instrumental in ending a controversial program that authorized sheriff’s deputies to perform the functions of federal immigration agents, and permitted ICE to operate a permanent office in county jail facilities. The sheriff had expressed hesitation about doing away with the agreement with ICE, known as 287g.

Since 2014, President Obama has made information-sharing between ICE and local law enforcement the main focus of his domestic enforcement policy, known as the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP).

A spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department referred L.A. Weekly to the sheriff's September 2015 report to the board, which contains his most recent statement on cooperation with ICE under the PEP program.

“Our federal and state leaders have developed approaches in regard to this important issue that are at times in tension with one another,” the report states. “It is the department’s aim to balance and reconcile these provisions, while also keeping foremost in mind the needs, safety and vitally important trust of our community.”

The Sheriff's Department's policy grants ICE broad access to inmates and databases in county jails. The National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles has deemed the access "excessive" and "beyond that required by PEP or endorsed by the Board of Supervisors.”

Jessica Bansal, an attorney representing immigrants in a class action suit against the Sheriff's Department, says discretion over the type of crime that warrants deportation rests with the president. President Obama, for example, made it a priority to deport undocumented immigrants for gang affiliation, although that too has been problematic.

“Trump will inherit that machinery," Bansal says. "He could change those priorities. He could start issuing detainers for anybody that’s arrested for any reason.”

The question is, will the new liberal super-majority on the Board of Supervisors approve new restrictions on the Sheriff’s Department’s agreement with ICE?

Jessie Gomez, communications director for Supervisor Solis, says the board is asking the Sheriff's Department for a report to clarify “what they have in place when it comes to immigrant residents or mass deportations in general if the president-elect decides to move forward on that promise.”

More than 170 people spoke on Tuesday in favor of the board's motion to protect immigrants, Gomez says, which passed by a 4-0 vote.

On Monday, top Democratic lawmakers in California proposed sweeping legislation to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. The proposals include offering free legal help to undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings, and prohibiting all state and local law enforcement from responding to requests from immigration authorities.

Erika Pinheiro, an attorney for the Central American Resource Center in L.A., says she hopes the actions of state lawmakers will serve to guide the efforts of the Board of Supervisors. Pinheiro has been meeting with policymakers and speaking to groups of undocumented immigrants in L.A.

"I think the state has the right idea: Protect due process," Pinheiro says. "A lot of this 'We don't cooperate' stuff is political posturing. It's not realistic. They do cooperate and will continue to cooperate. Within that context, what can we do to ensure [undocumented immigrants'] rights are protected?"

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