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Notices from Sonoma County Jail to ICE continue to drop as number of inmates detained by federal agents rises

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office is providing significantly fewer notices about jail inmate release dates to federal immigration authorities, a decline sheriff’s officials attributed to policy changes enacted two years ago to limit communication with federal agents over inmates whose immigration status is in question. The local changes went into effect just ahead of a law that mandated similar limits statewide.

Federal immigration officials last year asked the Sheriff’s Office to notify them before an inmate’s release in 535 cases, but jail staff only granted 88 of those requests - equating to 16% of all cases - according to data released this month by Sheriff Mark Essick.

The notifications were down 58% from 2017, when U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agents asked the Sheriff’s Office for release dates in 317 cases. Notifications were given for 212 of those requests, or two-thirds of all cases.

The data also revealed a significant pattern on the federal side: ICE ramped up its arrest operations at the Sonoma County Jail, going from 18 arrests in 2017 to 27 last year - when it had a much smaller number of notifications from jail staff - sheriff’s records showed.

But Essick said his department’s narrowed communication with ICE has been effective in limiting notifications to only the most serious cases - including inmates previously convicted of violent crimes.

“I think it’s having the desired effect of the Legislature,” Essick said of the 2017 state law, Senate Bill 54, also known as the California Values Act. “Those that have been turned over have met this very strict criteria.”

The update on jail operations comes amid another fraught period for immigrants in the U.S., as the Trump administration prepares a nationwide series of raids seeking to detain thousands of people suspected of being in the country illegally. The operation, postponed Saturday by President Trump, was said to be targeting individuals in San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with at least eight other cities.

From the outset of Trump’s presidency, California has sought to deter any greater federal crackdown on undocumented residents within its borders. More than 2 million undocumented immigrants are estimated to live in the state - most hailing from Mexico and countries in Central America - with more than 30,000 in Sonoma County.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, responding Friday to reports of the planned federal raids, reaffirmed his stance that California be a place of refuge, saying that all those who call the state home have rights and protections, regardless of their immigration status.

“The President’s proposed raids are cruel, misdirected and are creating unnecessary fear and anxiety,” Newsom said.

But, David Jennings, the director of ICE’s San Francisco office, said California’s laws shielding undocumented immigrants have impaired collaboration between local authorities and federal agents, a connection he called crucial to immigration enforcement.

The agency does not expect or want any local law enforcement agencies to carry out immigration enforcement, he added, but it does expect they “participate in protecting the American public,” he said.

“I urge local and state officials to prioritize public safety and the rights of past and future victims, as opposed to providing sanctuary to dangerous criminals who are in the United States illegally,” Jennings said in the email.

ICE is alerted of immigrants thought to be undocumented when fingerprints taken during jail bookings are sent to the Department of Homeland Security and cross-checked against criminal and immigration databases, Paul Prince, an ICE spokesman for the San Francisco office, said in an email.

If there’s a match, the information is sent to ICE officers so they can verify the person’s identity, immigration status and to determine if the person can be deported, Jennings said. From there, ICE asks jails to notify their staff of an inmate’s release so agents can take them into custody at the facility. How agencies respond to those requests varies across California, Prince said.

California law says county jails can only alert ICE of an inmate’s impending release in specific circumstances, such as when inmates have been convicted of certain serious and violent crimes, those who have served felony prison sentences or inmates included in the state’s arson and sex registry at the time of their arrest.

While Sonoma County’s notifications to federal agents have dropped, they continue to result in arrests at the jail.

Data for the first five months of 2019 shows 12% of ICE’s 271 requests to the Sheriff’s Office for release notices were granted. Fifteen people were arrested by ICE as a result.

If that pattern holds, the federal detentions at the jail will surpass those from last year and nearly double those from 2017.

Still, the jail notices to ICE number far less than two years ago, when, until the policy change in late summer, all ICE notifications were granted, said Bernice Espinoza, a deputy Sonoma County public defender and criminal immigration specialist. The prior policy resulted in denial of basic legal rights, Espinoza said.

“People were being taken away before coming to court or having a lawyer,” Espinoza said. “They wouldn’t know their rights.”

Public outcry and media scrutiny of jail operations led the Sheriff Office to announce its policy change in May 2017, two months after a critical report by the county’s law enforcement watchdog detailed deputies’ cooperation with ICE agents seeking to make jail arrests.

Then-Sheriff Steve Freitas announced his deputies would stop notifying ICE about release dates for people suspected of committing minor offenses. But the change didn’t come until in mid-August, shortly after Freitas’ retirement.

It complied with state law at the time and then came to mirror the new legislation taking shape. Senate Bill 54 was signed into law in October of that year and went into effect the next January.

It allowed deputies to issue ICE notifications in limited cases, including people with convictions for certain serious and violent crimes, those who served state prison sentences for felonies or inmates who were in the state’s sex offender or arson registry at the time of their arrest.

“We had already started to move the policy in that direction,” Essick said. “The law and our policy have changed to the point where the number of people being referred to ICE has been severely limited.”

Since 2017, the Public Defender’s Office has also offered its guidance to the sheriff’s department in how to comply with other state statutes that mandate inmates be told when ICE agents inquire about their release date or seek to interview them.

The changes are helping to safeguard legal rights for more jail inmates, defense attorneys say.

“If you look at the straight numbers, more people are having the opportunity to go to trial, be present for the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute and for cases to actually be heard and people to know their rights,” Espinoza said.

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