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ACLU, others want four Southern California counties to hold public meetings on sheriff cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The American Civil Liberties Union and immigration advocacy groups are calling on four Southern California counties to be more transparent about their collaboration with federal immigration officials.

In September, the groups sent separate letters to the boards of supervisors in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties requesting that each county hold a public forum in which sheriff officials could explain how and why their departments gave federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents access to inmates in county jails in 2017. The September letter, in one county, was a follow-up to earlier unanswered requests.

Though the letters don’t accuse any of the four counties of breaking state law, two of the letters said local collaboration with ICE “has had a chilling effect on our immigrant community’s trust in law enforcement.”

“We believe this forum is vital to ensure transparency in existing law enforcement practices and to build community trust,” the ACLU wrote.

Under a controversial state law known as SB-54, local police and sheriff’s agencies generally aren’t allowed to tell federal immigration agents when a jail inmate is about to be released, unless that inmate is accused of a violent crime or is a repeat offender. California law also says a prisoner has to give written permission before sitting down for an ICE interview while in custody.

The public forums requested by the ACLU and others also are required under California law.

The Transparent Review of Unjust Transfers and Holds, or TRUTH, Act, which took effect in 2017, calls for the governing board of any county where law enforcement has provided ICE access to an individual during the previous year to hold at least one community forum the following year. It also requires that county records related to ICE access are subject to the public records act.

The forums must be open to the public, held in an accessible location and be advertised publicly for at least 30 days. The ACLU and other groups also are asking counties to live-stream the forums.

Some of the counties have been more responsive than others in answering the ACLU requests.

While none have officially scheduled a forum, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors is expected to consider scheduling one for Dec. 4 during its meeting Tuesday, Oct. 16.

Requests of Orange County, however, have gone unanswered since June, prompting the ACLU to send a follow up letter in September.

Immigration advocates are particularly concerned about ICE’s access to inmates in Orange County’s jails, due to the sheriff department’s previous cooperation with ICE officials, said Sameer Ahmed, staff attorney with the ACLU Southern California.

In March, the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. said it would publicize the release dates of all inmates in county jails. This gives notice to every police agency, including ICE, about every inmate.

Immigration advocates view the move as an attempt to get around state law.

California law, however, makes exceptions when it comes to cooperating with ICE, saying local police and sheriff departments can tell federal immigration agents about inmates accused of hundreds of offenses, such as assault, sexual abuse and rape, crimes endangering children, burglary, robbery, some domestic violence offenses, and others.

The law also prohibits so-called 287G agreements — in which counties train and deputizes local police and deputies to act as ICE agents in some circumstances. Orange County was the last county in the state to have an active 287-G agreement with ICE.

Ahmed, with the ACLU, said the county’s recent history with ICE should make it willing to hold a public forum about the Sheriff Dept.’s interactions with federal immigration agents.

Molly Nichelson, Orange County public information manager, said via email that county officials are aware of the public meeting requirement and are trying to identify the best date to maximize public participation.

The ACLU, Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice and California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance sent similar requests to officials in San Bernardino and Riverside counties urging them to schedule forums in November.

Officials in San Bernardino County said county deputies did have some contacts with ICE during 2017 and that they’re planning a public forum, according to a staff report.

The ACLU letters described a high-profile case in San Bernardino County involving local deputies, ICE and an American mistakenly identified as an undocumented immigrant.

In December 2017, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against ICE and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of Guadalupe Plascencia, a longtime county resident and U.S. Citizen of 20 years. According to the lawsuit, Plascencia, then 60, was jailed and put on an ICE hold after trying to retrieve personal belongings from the Ontario Police Department. The lawsuit also said she was mocked by ICE agents until her daughter came to the station with Plascencia’s U.S. passport, proving her citizenship.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Sgt. Marc Bracco said the department only notifies ICE about local prisoners in accordance with state law, and doesn’t actively engage with immigration officials or give information that isn’t open to the public. Bracco added that the department has a “good working relationship” with the ACLU.

“We’re not immigration officers,” Bracco said. “We do not want to put the fear into immigrants in our society that they can’t trust their law enforcement. Because we’re here to protect them.”

In Riverside, county officials are evaluating the request for a public forum, said Ray Smith, the county’s public information officer. Smith said he did not have a specific date or time frame for when that evaluation would be completed.

Jerry Gutierrez, Riverside County Assistant Sheriff, said the department follows state law and responds to ICE notifications involving serious or violent offenders, and that it provides documentation about those notifications to the ACLU or any other interested party.

“The Riverside County Sheriffs Department has always been transparent.”

Luis Nolasco, community engagement and policy advocate with the ACLU of SoCal, said he hopes the public forums could lead to smoother relations between county sheriffs and the public.

“I think this will be a good opportunity for us to learn a little more about what the sheriff’s department has been doing,” he said.

Los Angeles County is also working to schedule a date for the forum, said Susan Huff, the county’s public information officer.

The California Immigrant Policy Center sent its first formal request to Los Angeles County in September asking for clarity on findings of a 2017 report from the Office of the Inspector General, which found discrepancies related to the sheriff’s department’s cooperation with ICE.

The report found evidence of a “continued permanent ICE presence” at the inmate reception center in Los Angeles. That finding came after the county ended a controversial program that allowed sheriff’s department employees to perform immigration-related work in the jails.

Employees with the Office of the Inspector General also observed “many occasions” in which Los Angeles County Sheriff officials gave information to ICE about inmates who were about to be released, according to the report.

Carlos Amador, organizing director with the California Immigrant Policy Center, said he hopes the public forums will offer detail about local cooperation with ICE

“The community needs to have a better sense of how deep this collaboration is.”

Sandra Emerson
Orange County Register

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