New sheriff on sidelines at forum on immigration
By Jordan Graham
firstname.lastname@example.org @JordanSGraham on Twitter
Immigration activists cried foul Tuesday during a public forum about the Orange County Sheriff Department’s cooperation with federal immigration agents, a meeting that county supervisors ended without allowing law enforcement officials to speak.
The first-ever Transparent Review of Unjust Transfers and Holds hearing was one of several either held or scheduled to be held across California this month. It follows a 2017 state law that requires counties that provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement access to detained individuals to also hold an annual meeting to tell the public the details of those activities.
Among the details released Tuesday was this statistic: In 2017, a year before the most stringent elements of California’s so-called sanctuary laws took effect, 736 people with federal immigration detainers were released from Orange County jail to the street, while 580 others were released to ICE.
But that information — along with details about the department’s policies for cooperating with ICE — was published only in the meeting’s online agenda and wasn’t discussed at the hearing. The
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meeting was ended by supervisors before Undersheriff Don Barnes, who will take over as Orange County sheriff next month, was allowed to make a presentation.
After hearing public statements from more than 30 people — most but not all speaking in favor of immigrant rights — Board Chairman Andrew Do asked county counsel whether supervisors were required to provide data at the meeting. When Do was told it was optional, he ended the forum.
That perceived lack of transparency by the county frustrated many of the activists and civil-rights attorneys in attendance, who said the move to shut down the meeting before hearing from Barnes was not in keeping with state law.
“It demonstrates that Orange County is clearly the least transparent in the state, and that they don’t want to be held accountable for how they are interacting with ICE,” said Sameer Ahmed, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
“They hid (the information) in a 640-page supplemental agenda that was not discussed in the forum itself. I think it violates both the letter and spirit of the law.”
Ahmed said Orange County was the only municipality in the state, to his knowledge, in which no public official presented information or answered questions.
Annie Lai, co-director of Immigrant Rights Clinic at UC Irvine Law, added that the information supplied by the county failed to answer many questions, such as how often ICE had requested to interview people in Orange County jails and how often those interview requests were declined.
Sheriff’s officials said Barnes was prepared to make a presentation and answer questions but was never called upon. They noted that county supervisors determined the forum’s format.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department said after the meeting that it adheres to state law in how it coordinates with ICE. The department said it remands inmates to federal immigration agents only when those individuals’ crimes qualify under state law. Sheriff’s officials also note that they perform no street-level immigration enforcement.
But Orange County supervisors and sheriff’s leadership have opposed California’s controversial sanctuary law, and the Sheriff’s Department has in past years had a closer relationship with ICE than many other California municipalities. That included an agreement that allowed sheriff’s deputies to act as immigration agents in county jails. The sheriff voided that agreement in December 2017, days before California’s sanctuary law took effect. But in March, in an effort to assist ICE, the Orange County sheriff began posting the date and time of inmates’ release. That same month, the county joined a Trump administration lawsuit against the sanctuary law.
“The Sheriff opposed SB 54 because it violated the principle of open communication amongst law enforcement on shared threats,” Barnes wrote in a prepared statement Tuesday. “But SB 54 is law and we are committed to following that law.”
Tuesday’s forum became heated at times as opposing political factions addressed the board.
Mike McCoy, a member of We the People Rising, an anti-illegal immigration organization, said it was common sense for the Sheriff’s Department to coordinate with ICE and hand off people who are in this country illegally who had committed additional crimes.
“Anybody who’s an illegal in this room right now, get the hell out of my country!” McCoy yelled at the crowd upon finishing his speech.
But most speakers on Tuesday urged the county to drop its opposition to California’s sanctuary law and to increase transparency about its dealings with ICE.
“I continuously hear from our community members their discomfort and fear at just the site of local law enforcement,” said Luis Gomez, the immigration resources specialist at the LGBT Center OC. “The fact that the Sheriff Department makes … attempts to collaborate with ICE despite state legislation prohibiting so, sends a strong message to our community members.”
Lewis Adame addresses Orange County supervisors during a Truth Act forum in Santa Ana on Tuesday. Adame was among members of the public who spoke during a forum on the jail’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
PAUL BERSEBACH — STAFF PHOTGRAPHER