Photograph by Alma Shaw
SECURED: Valentin Cuevas Lopez at the May 1 march in Santa Rosa against ICE collaboration. A bill advancing in the Assembly could effectively end the program, which has had complex, unintended consequences.
An Assembly bill would let county sheriffs opt out of collaborating with ICE. Is Sonoma County even interested?
By Leilani Clark
Without question, the collaboration between the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a program known as Secure Communities, has led to a host of problems. Women have become terrified of reporting domestic violence for fear of being deported; arrests for minor traffic violations have resulted in families in upheaval; and distrust and fear of law enforcement is rampant in the immigrant community.
Even as pressure mounts in Sonoma County to end the ICE collaboration, county officials have insisted that their hands are tied, since Secure Communities is a federally mandated program. But a bill authored by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, which last week advanced in committee to be heard on the assembly floor, may be the solution. If passed, AB 1081, aka the TRUST Act (Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools), would allow local governments to opt out of the program if they so choose.
At last week's vote in Sacramento, San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey testified in support of the bill before the Public Safety Committee. In an earlier statement, Hennessey called the program "flawed," adding that "AB 1081 will help law enforcement win back some trust with immigrant communities. That, in turn, will improve public safety for everyone."
Omar Gallardo, site coordinator for the Graton Day Labor Center, attended the hearing last week along with 10 immigrant workers.
"Sheriff Hennessey mentioned some of that fear that has been going on in San Francisco," says Gallardo, "especially among women—some of these women were actually present at the hearing as well—who have been placed on holds after reporting domestic violence." Gallardo reiterates that many people in Sonoma County experience the same worry—that any contact with law enforcement will lead to deportation.
Originally sold by Homeland Security as a way to capture and remove "dangerous criminal aliens" from communities using fingerprint technology to determine the immigration status of those booked into the county jail, Secure Communities has lately come under fire for flawed design. Critics like Sheriff Hennessey have gone on record saying the program was forced on local governments and jails without consent.
Furthermore, data reveals that most of the immigrants swept up by ICE holds have not committed felonies. According to data released by ICE in March, 72.55 percent of 470 deportees in Sonoma County between 2008 and 2011 were noncriminals or minor offenders; 42.55 percent, or 200 out of 470, had no criminal record whatsoever.
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chair Efren Carrillo told the Bohemian that he supports the TRUST act. "I do believe that allowing local governments to have a say is critically important, particularly with a program that has drawn so much controversy," Carrillo says of the collaboration with ICE. "We learned about the program, quite frankly, when the press came out with a story around it."
However, when the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) unanimously passed a resolution urging the county to stop funding any sheriff's activities that cast too wide a net on the immigrant community through collaboration with ICE, or that go above or beyond what is required by state and federal law, it was rejected by the county administrator. The supervisors have yet to place it on their agenda.
"We felt like we hit a dead end," says commissioner Dale Geist, who was involved in drafting the resolution. "Valerie Brown and Efren Carrillo have really staked a position that we are not going to interfere with the sheriff's department one bit because of the idea that Secure Communities is mandatory."
If the TRUST Act becomes law, the board of supervisors may be subject to political pressure to make changes recommended by the CHR without the excuse that the program is federally required. "It would be pretty embarrassing to the supervisors if that happened," says Geist.
Steve Freitas, who was elected Sonoma County sheriff in January, told the CHR in March that it was not his job to enforce federal law. He also said that community concerns have caused him to review certain policies currently in effect in the county. It remains unclear if, like San Francisco Sheriff Hennessey, Freitas publicly endorses the TRUST Act. (Freitas could not be personally reached for comment by press time.)
Supervisor Valerie Brown says that even if the TRUST Act passes through the full Assembly and is signed into law by the governor, she doesn't know if it could be legally implemented by local California governments.
"My understanding is that federal law trumps us, especially in an arena where there are people that have committed felonies that quite honestly need to be deported," says Brown. "The only thing that overrides federal law is constitutional amendment."
Brown adds that AB 1081 could put law enforcement and local governments in a difficult position with the federal government, ending in conflicts that would need to be worked out in a courtroom.
Carrillo stands by the assertion that giving local government the power to make decisions on immigration enforcement and use of county resources, a basic tenet of the TRUST Act, is a good thing.
"If you allow local municipalities an opportunity to determine whether they want to want to opt out," says Carrillo, "it really allows local governments to set specific parameters and conditions so that you don't have racial profiling and so that you are protecting children and domestic violence survivors. There's a safety component.
Any time you allow local government the power to participate in establishing any program, you usually end up with a better result."