By Raheem Hosseini
Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones admitted this month that his department turned over a Latino man to federal deportation agents even though it wasn't supposed to alert ICE.
The father was one of 52 people who completed jail sentences in Sacramento only to be released to Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year.
Jones acknowledged the mistake during an annual presentation mandated by California's TRUTH Act. That law requires local governing bodies to hold at least one public forum a year if their law enforcement agencies provided access to ICE.
While Jones told county supervisors on Dec. 15 that his office disregarded 419 requests from ICE to detain jail inmates past their official release dates, the sheriff’s office did arrange for ICE to intercept dozens of people as they were being released “and do whatever ICE does with them.”
California law only allows jail transfers into ICE custody if the incarcerated individuals have been convicted of specific crimes.
That threshold wasn't met in the case of the Latino father, who spent four days in jail in August 2019 for a misdemeanor conviction of driving under the influence.
Jones told supervisors the man was arrested and booked for the DUI commitment on Aug. 3. A few days later, he had served his time and was supposed to go free. Before that happened, though, a clerk at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove alerted the Sacramento ICE office about the man’s release. Sheriff’s staff then escorted the man outside the gates of the branch jail.
That’s where federal agents took him into custody.
“It was basically human error by a clerk,” Jones told supervisors. “They inadvertently, mistakenly notified ICE and custody was transferred to ICE for a time.”
A man who identified himself as Enrique called into the supervisors’ meeting to say he was the victim of the mistaken transfer. Speaking through an interpreter, Enrique said he was looking forward to being reunited with his daughter when jail staff summoned him to an office. Inside, an ICE agent waited.
“Suddenly, happiness and nervousness became fear and above all sadness when I heard the person say, ‘I’m an agent of immigration,’” Enrique said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
He says he was loaded into a van with his hands and feet shackled, and that he broke down crying as it drove away. At the Sacramento ICE office, Enrique said he dialed the only phone number he’d committed to memory. His boss of 13 years told him, “We’re going to do everything in our power to get you back to your daughter and with us,” Enrique recalled.
Enrique told supervisors he spent two months in immigration detention “not knowing if I would ever see my daughter again.”
Jones told supervisors his office reminded Rio Cosumnes employees of the state laws governing notifications to ICE and that a similar mistake hasn’t happened since. “And hopefully it never will happen,” he added.
While many view California as a “sanctuary state” that no longer works with ICE, it actually still allows law enforcement agencies to choose whether to cooperate with immigration authorities, under the TRUST Act.
Agencies can alert federal deportation agents if the individuals being sought have certain prior convictions, including for serious crimes such as child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, robbery, firearm offenses and gang-related crimes.
“It’s allowed by law; it’s not required by law,” Jones said in answer to a question from Supervisor Patrick Kennedy.
According to Jones' presentation, the 52 people the sheriff’s office alerted ICE about in 2019 included 12 who were convicted of felony drug offenses, four who were convicted of counterfeiting felonies, three who were convicted of felony burglary, three who were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and one who was convicted of misdemeanor resisting arrest.
Immigration advocates want zero cooperation between Sacramento County and ICE, and during the board meeting pointed to a Sept. 1 decision by Los Angeles County supervisors requiring ICE to get warrants or probable cause determinations signed by judges if it hopes to access any individual, building or information in L.A. County custody.
“We ask the board of supervisors … to enact a similar policy,” said Carlos Montes-Ponce, a regional organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Sacramento County officials noted that their Southern California counterparts were only able to achieve these policies with the buy-in of L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who agreed not to facilitate inmate transfers absent a warrant.
“It required the cooperation and the agreement of the sheriff, which we do not have here,” said board chairman Supervisor Phil Serna, who hinted that not all his colleagues were on the same page. “Absent that consensus on the board along with the participation of the sheriff, I just want to make it clear … that would be very difficult to achieve here.”
Supervisors accepted Jones’ report without requesting that he alter his approach, unlike supervisors in Alameda County, several of whom publicly criticized their sheriff for facilitating 44 immigration transfers.
Local immigrant advocates contend any collaboration with ICE is especially dangerous at the moment.
“When you look at what’s happening right now, in relation to the pandemic and COVID-19, any cooperation with ICE is especially cruel and inhumane because immigrants are getting severely sick and dying in ICE facilities,” said Janeth Rodriguez, who chairs the Sacramento Immigration Coalition.
Pointing to a story in The New York Times and a report from the Immigrant Resource Legal Center, Rodriguez characterized ICE as “a superspreader” that is “feeding the global pandemic” by sending immigrants infected by COVID-19 to other countries.
A minimum of 52% of ICE detainees tested through May 31 had contracted COVID-19, according to the Vera Institute for Justice.
Former ICE detainee Joe Mejia Rosas described wretched conditions in counties that sublet their jails to ICE. Mejia Rosas, whose 36 months in immigration detention included a stint at Rio Cosumnes before supervisors ended the sheriff’s ICE contract in 2018, was released from the Yuba County Jail in July due to the pandemic. The Yuba County Jail, which rents out part of its facility for immigration detention, has been the site of multiple hunger strikes by detainees.
“We understand that some of us may have committed crimes or errors that may have put us in this situation, but we are still deserving of the most basic of necessities,” Mejia Rosas told supervisors.
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