Will Allowing ICE Agents Into Local Jails Make Immigrants Safer? L.A.'s Sheriff Thinks So
Ted Soqui

Will Allowing ICE Agents Into Local Jails Make Immigrants Safer? L.A.'s Sheriff Thinks So

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell is leading the charge against California legislation that would prevent sheriff departments from sharing with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents information about undocumented immigrants.

The bill, known as the California Values Act, or SB 54, would prohibit local law enforcement from informing ICE of the release dates of inmates and prohibit ICE from interviewing inmates inside jails. Most important, it would block the transfer of inmates into ICE custody.

Supporters of the bill say it is urgently needed to stop the Trump administration from enlisting local law enforcement in the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants. McDonnell and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have raised objections to the bill, and the California State Sheriffs’ Association opposes it.

Jails would be off-limits to ICE under the bill, and local police engaging with ICE in street-level policing would face new restrictions.

McDonnell opposed the bill in a letter, made public last week, to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who introduced the legislation. In the letter, McDonnell expressed concern that by barring ICE access to the county jails, the bill could lead to federal sweeps and apprehension of residents who were not originally the target of the enforcement actions.

"What we're concerned about with this bill is that it will not let us communicate with ICE about an inmate’s release," says Sgt. Brandon Epp, of the sheriff department's legislative unit. “ICE is not going to give up and go home because we're not communicating with them. They're going to go out into the community.”

Anthony Reyes, communications director for De León, says the sheriff's department was part of the ad hoc group working out the details of the proposal until about two weeks ago. "The sheriff has broken off negotiations without even directly telling our office," Reyes said in an email to the Weekly. "We thought we had a better working relationship that was honest and forthright, but it is obvious he is not negotiating in good faith."

McDonnell's opposition puts him at odds with Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Charlie Beck. Beck said earlier this week that he agrees with the bill's "underlying tenets." Garcetti has endorsed the bill, saying undocumented immigrants must be able to talk to law enforcement without fear when they are victims of and witnesses to crimes.

"We need people to report crimes to us," says Josh Rubenstein, public information director for the LAPD. "And if they feel we are going to enforce [ICE deportation efforts], we feel we won't be able to accomplish that."

A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment on the proposed legislation, citing a prohibition against "lobbying." Claude Arnold, who recently retired as director of Homeland Security Investigations in L.A., says the bill would make local law enforcement officials complicit in violating federal law against "harboring aliens."

"There’s going to be a showdown over this eventually," Arnold says.

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell
L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell
LA County Sheriff's Dept

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued new guidelines rescinding the previous system of enforcement established under the Obama administration. President Obama had made violent and serious criminal offenders a priority for removal. Under the new guidelines of the Trump administration, ICE can now request a transfer for anyone who is arrested for any reason.  

Supporters say SB 54 is critical now that the Trump administration has vowed to reintroduce a program authorizing local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.

When a person is booked in a local jail, the inmate's name and fingerprint are sent to the Department of Justice, a database to which ICE has access. SB 54 would not alter that, but it would protect the inmates from being made subject to ICE interviews in jail, which is what leads in many cases to deportation proceedings. And it also would prevent them from being transferred to ICE custody.

The most up-to-date version of the bill, amended on March 6, would allow sheriffs to notify the FBI, not ICE, of an inmate convicted of violent felonies.

Under current policy, the L.A. County Sheriff's department will accommodate a request for a transfer of an inmate into ICE custody if the person is convicted of one of a set of crimes enumerated in California law. Advocates say that no other county in California has any such criteria for facilitating a transfer, and that without a statewide standard, people could be transferred to ICE even if they are not charged with a crime.

McDonnell objects to the revised list of crimes in SB 54, which uses the violent felonies named under Proposition 57 — a list narrower than under current California law.

Creating a clear separation between criminal and immigration enforcement is the overriding purpose of the bill, says Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants rights for the ACLU of California and a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.

"People aren't prevented from being removed, it just prevents the sheriff's department from facilitating the transfer," Pasquarella says. "ICE can still go after them. ICE has the information they need to be able to pick people up when they're being released from custody or in the community. They can find people. This is more about creating that clear separation."

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