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In California’s San Joaquin Valley, ACLU says sheriffs test sanctuary policies that protect immigrants

FRESNO, Calif. — The American Civil Liberties Union detailed in a new report the ways sheriff’s departments in eight counties of California’s San Joaquin Valley – home to nearly a million immigrants – have “circumvented” the state’s sanctuary laws meant to protect California immigrants. This has been a result, in part, with sheriffs’ continued engagement with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Immigration has been a much-discussed topic in the state, but after multiple legal challenges to California’s immigrant sanctuary laws in recent years, including one case that reached the Supreme Court, the measures aimed at shielding undocumented immigrants from being held in detention remain in place.

Senate Bill 54, also known as the California Values Act, is a part of a trio of California laws that earned the state the symbolic title of “sanctuary” for immigrants without legal residency. The law, which was once challenged by the Trump administration in court, limits how local police can cooperate with federal immigration agents. But the ACLU report, released in February, finds that after SB54 took effect in 2018, more than 1,000 undocumented residents in California’s San Joaquin Valley have been placed in removal proceedings after serving jail time or being arrested by local law enforcement. 

ACLU attorneys told the NewsHour the continued cooperation between sheriff’s departments and ICE agents is a test of the laws’ parameters, and they point to loopholes in current legislation that has allowed immigration detention to grow in recent years. 

The organization estimates that the number of undocumented residents transferred to ICE custody  could be higher – nearly three times higher – since the civil rights organization found counties undercount the number of transfers they report to the state’s attorney general. 

Sheriffs in the San Joaquin Valley, responding to the report, maintained that they are acting within the law and deny any wrongdoing. However, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told local reporters the department would investigate claims by the ACLU, such as that the department has attempted to hold people in custody to allow immigration officials to pick them up. 

Read more: U.S. immigration arrests drop amid focus on those accused of serious crimes

Maria Romani, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California who spearheaded the report, said the organization uncovered the information through public records and internal communication obtained from sheriffs showing “active communication” with ICE officials. 

ACLU has long suspected sheriff’s departments were continuing to communicate with ICE agents, even after passage of three laws since 2017 that were largely meant to decrease local law enforcement cooperation with ICE. Activists in the state have long pushed state officials to limit ICE presence within immigrant communities out of concern for deportation. 

Years after passage of those laws, however, thousands of requests by ICE inquiring about jailed undocumented residents for removal proceedings were submitted to local sheriffs departments, and many have been approved, according to the report.

After the Value Act was enacted in 2017, immigration detainers, written requests known as Form I-247, spiked to roughly 3,500 in fiscal year 2019, the report shows. For comparison, ICE issued detainers less than half that amount – 1,154 – in fiscal year 2016, a historically low number.

ICE issues these detainer forms to federal, state or local law enforcement agencies when federal enforcement agents want to know more information about an arrested individual or want to take them into ICE custody.

Each of California’s pro-immigrant laws passed in the 2010s – the TRUST Act, the TRUTH Act and the Values Act – provide protections from a crackdown on immigration enforcement. 

The TRUST Act, which went into effect in 2014, prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining undocumented residents after a jail release for the purpose of holding them in immigration detention. Enacted about three years later, The TRUTH Act requires law enforcement agencies to provide written consent forms to undocumented residents in custody, which would explain the purpose of an immigration enforcement interview. The Values Act, signed into law in 2017, prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from using personnel to carry out arrests or questioning for immigration enforcement purposes. The legislation doesn’t prevent police from pursuing immigrants who have committed violent crimes.

Activists had hoped the laws would curb the practice of detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants in California. But now, some question whether the legislation is enough, since exemptions in the laws allow local law enforcement to still work with ICE agents under certain conditions.

Romani said the laws, along with legal exemptions, are being “vaguely interpreted” by law enforcement officials and used as a “loophole” to place more people than are eligible in detention. “What they’re doing is that they’re going over and beyond and providing more information than what even ICE is asking for,” she said. 

What examples does ACLU cite?

In its report, the ACLU details examples of specific communication between sheriff’s departments and ICE.

Emails show some departments, like the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department in the northern San Joaquin Valley, inquired about the timing of an ICE agent’s arrival for a possible transfer to federal custody.

ACLU also said emails involving the same sheriff’s department pointed to a new enforcement tactic from ICE. An ICE official proposed an idea to pre-screen inmates at the Stanislaus County Jail to determine whether they would fall under the Values Act’s eligibility for immigration detainment. This was a way to “produce more transfers to ICE,” the ICE official said in an email to the Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse. The sheriff, in turn, thought it was a good idea.

In another instance, an ICE official emailed Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims to explain an ICE arrest that took place inside the Fresno County Superior Court. 

The ICE agents, the email stated, went into the courtroom and waited until an individual’s case was called. Following the hearing, ICE agents followed the man onto the sidewalk and took him under custody. 

In a Feb. 18 email responding to the arrest, Mims said, “We will support this.”

During the Trump administration, immigration enforcement escalated along with challenges to the state’s sanctuary laws. That included multiple arrests at California courthouses, which is prohibited by law unless there is a warrant. ICE officials cite federal jurisdiction for their actions.

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Sheriff’s departments, on the other hand, see their support of ICE activities as mechanisms to “keep communities safe,” but insist they are not breaking the law. 

Different sheriff’s departments have said arrests of recently-released inmates made by ICE agents in public settings don’t count as official handovers by local law enforcement under the state laws, since ICE conducts the arrests on their own. However, attorneys consider this is a blind spot in California law that allows sheriffs to allow ICE to cast a wider net of individuals without legally breaking the law. 

The ACLU report revealed sheriffs from several Valley counties were invited to a 2018 meeting hosted by the local Republican Party. The Foundation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit organization that supports curtailing immigration, was also invited. The informational meeting was aimed at offering advice and legal assistance to attendees to oppose SB 54 – the Values Act.

A spokesman for the Fresno County sheriff’s office confirmed in an email to the NewsHour that Mim’s attendance at the meeting, and said she regularly attends political events.

“It is obvious the authors of the [ACLU] report do not want any communication with ICE, however, that is not what the laws say,” Mims said in an emailed statement to the NewsHour. Mims announced her retirement last month. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists its priorities for ICE detainment and removal for anyone who poses a threat to national security, public safety, or border security. Within these priorities, DHS states that a person’s past criminal history, along with the severity of the crime, makes them more prone for detainment. The department also lists reasons why deportation may be reconsidered, such as “impact of removal on family” and “whether a noncitizen may be eligible for humanitarian protection.”

Alethea Smock, spokeswoman with ICE’s Northwest Region, did not say whether ICE initiates contact with sheriffs’ departments, and deferred to the local agencies. Smock also said she could not “authenticate the validity” of the ACLU’s report. Smock, however, did provide a list of exemptions where a local law enforcement official is allowed the discretion to cooperate with immigration agents. Those reasons include whether the individual in custody has committed crimes involving kidnapping, gang-related activities, battery and sexual offenses, among a list of other violent crimes. 

Sheriff’s departments could be ‘subject to liability’

ICE and sheriffs do have some discretion under the law to communicate on the transfer of an undocumented resident. But providing ICE with more information on undocumented inmates than requested is a practice that attorneys said is voluntary and one that sheriffs in the Valley have leaned into.

In other California cities, the practice is no longer in place.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, one of the state’s largest departments, decided to permanently end all transfers of inmates to ICE in 2020 following a temporary pause due to the pandemic.

At the time, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the department would “encourage ICE to use the constitutionally sound judicial warrant system” to carry out a transfer from the jail to an immigration detention center. 

Villanueva said that the decision to stop active engagement with ICE was also to limit the fear among undocumented residents – fear of deportations, fear of their families being torn apart – when reporting crime. 

But Angela Chan, director of immigrant rights policy at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, told the NewsHour that sheriff’s departments also open themselves up for lawsuits and liability if they continue the practice of actively engaging with ICE. 

Chan, who was formerly a policy director and senior staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, previously sued sheriff’s departments over violations of the Values Act. She said sheriff’s departments in the San Joaquin Valley are “dancing on the edge” of the law in their engagement with ICE. 

She and other advocates are pushing the state to pass new legislation, the VISION Act, which would make it tougher for law enforcement agents to hand an undocumented inmate over to ICE. The law was first proposed in 2021. 

If passed, the law would greatly prohibit the ICE transfer of undocumented immigrants who are eligible to be released from jail or prisons. The law would further position California as a ‘sanctuary state,’ Chan said.

“Sanctuary isn’t something that ‘you passed the law, and that’s it, you’re done,’” Chan said. “It’s kind of like a flame. You have to keep it alive, as a commitment.”

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Traffic crosses through downtown Madera, California on Feb. 3, 2022. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union accused sheriff departments in California’s San Joaquin Valley of “actively engaging” with Immigration and Customs Enforcement despite state laws aimed at curtailing the cooperation. Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour.

During her work with the Asian Law Caucus, Chan worked with the “ICE out of California” effort that brought numerous organizations together to push the state to enact laws that limited law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents. Chan said she has seen cases where an undocumented person, just released from jail, was asked to return to review some paperwork, an alleged tactic to stall the person long enough so that ICE can arrive and detain them. 

Holding a person for extra time is not allowed under the TRUST Act, and Chan said these types of subtle violations open sheriff departments to lawsuits. 

“When you start dabbling in federal immigration enforcement, an area where no sheriff’s departments are experts in — immigration law is extremely complicated — they will inevitably mess up and subject themselves to liability,” Chan said. “More importantly, [this] creates fear in the immigrant community that their local law enforcement agency is an arm of ICE, and that results in damage to the community that can last a very long time.”

How fear of ICE impacts immigrant communities

Fear of engaging with ICE has been a long-held feeling for undocumented residents living in the San Joaquin Valley.

In recent years, some organizations – like Faith in the Valley, a faith-based organization based in Fresno that works on issues like immigration, housing and environment –  have formed “rapid response networks” in which community members report real or rumored sightings of ICE in a community in order to protect families who are undocumented from the risk of being swept up in enforcement raids. Community members, for example, often report white vans in neighborhoods or agents walking through streets with police vests. 

The fear stems from the history of law enforcement cooperating with ICE, said Alex Gonzalez, a Kern County policy director with Faith in the Valley. 

It’s estimated three out of four ICE arrests originate from a local jail or prison, according to data tracked by the Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. And more recently, fears were renewed by new local contracts for immigration detention centers in the region. 

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In 2020, when the city council of McFarland, California, debated opening two immigration detention centers in Kern County, hundreds of community members – mainly from the town’s Catholic church – attended the city’s council meeting to oppose the idea. Gonzalez said McFarland is home to many farmworkers and undocumented residents who felt a detention center could upend their lives. 

Despite the protests, the McFarland city council voted to approve the centers, adding to the detention capacity of undocumented residents in the region. 

Combined, the Golden State Annex and Central Valley Annex facilities – owned by the GEO Group, Inc. — can hold up to 1,400 detainees. 

How a lack of legal representation is a barrier for immigrants

Attorneys and advocates told the NewsHour that the Central Valley region is ripe for immigration enforcement violations due to a lack of legal resources and a number of challenges affecting the immigrant community, unlike other major city centers in the state where resources are more available. 

According to OneJustice, a San Francisco-based legal think tank, out of California’s estimated 100 legal nonprofit organizations, 27 serve rural areas like those found in the San Joaquin Valley. Immigrant advocates say only a handful are equipped to provide representation to detained undocumented people. 

Between 2001 and 2021, more than 53,000 undocumented residents in the Central Valley faced deportation, according to ACLU’s report, based on TRAC data. The organization said those who remained detained during their removal process had a lower chance of obtaining representation than those who were freed after being taken into custody by ICE. 

Kristina McKibben, director of the Sacramento-based Community Justice Alliance nonprofit, which serves as a deportation defense group, said the impact of deportation can be intergenerational among families, especially if a parent is taken away. 

McKibben’s organization was chosen to be part of an effort to increase the number of legal defenders for undocumented residents facing removal in places where resources are lacking. Ten legal were placed in the Central Valley and Central Coast in California to assist with legal defense under the state-sponsored California Immigration Legal Fellowship

Advocates told the NewsHour that providing legal resources to undocumented immigrants would lessen the burdens faced by the residents in the Valley, who have become established in different communities but some still struggle to access basic resources. 

McKibben said while the threat of detention hangs over them, legal resources or immigration reforms could alleviate the community concerns. She said undocumented immigrants are already highly vulnerable as it is. 

“Immigration enforcement is its own standalone system, and disentangling it from local law enforcement is definitely one way to protect communities from being transferred over into immigration enforcement,” McKibben said. “But immigration enforcement, as its own system, doesn’t require much to just enforce against people.” 

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