An emotional debate on Santa Clara County's immigration policy ended Tuesday with supervisors voting to study changing sanctuary laws to allow federal authorities to be notified of undocumented inmates who have been convicted of specific crimes.
The county counsel will now determine whether the change is legal and staff will study how such a notification process could function.
It will not affect the county's refusal to cooperate with detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and hold inmates in jail longer, which is unconstitutional in California.
Instead, it could allow police and sheriff's deputies to contact federal authorities with an inmate's release date, time and location if they are an undocumented person convicted of serious and violent crimes. ICE would then be responsible for taking the inmate into custody prior to their release.
About 200 speakers during public comment overwhelmingly opposed changes to the county's sanctuary policy, which in 2011 paved the way for dozens of other counties in the state. They said an amendment would create a double standard for criminals in the county, entrap innocent victims of the criminal justice system and politicize a tragedy to scapegoat undocumented immigrants.
Supervisors Dave Cortese and Mike Wasserman introduced the board referrals after the murder of south San Jose woman Bambi Larson on Feb. 28 and the arrest of 24-year-old Carlos Eduardo Arevalo Carranza, a suspect in the slaying.
The undocumented man was allegedly under the influence of methamphetamine, had a long criminal history throughout California, had been arrested and released at least six times and was under a detainer request from ICE. He also suffered from mental illness, according to police.
Amid swirling accusations of blame in Larson's death, the San Jose police chief, mayor, police officer's association, county district attorney and sheriff together demanded the county change its policy against communicating with ICE, a position that many of them advocated for during a similar discussion in 2015.
Heads of each organization emphasized that they do not want to alienate law-abiding undocumented residents, but other speakers Tuesday maintained that any collaboration with federal authorities would erode quality of life for all immigrants.
"There is no need and no moral imperative to do ICE's work for it," county Public Defender Molly O'Neal said. "Their currency is fear and intimidation. This is the same ICE that has felt zero compunction about separating small children from their parents at the border... and is part and parcel of a federal administration determined to promote hatred and racism. We urge you to keep ICE out of our jails."
Francisco Ugarte, deputy public defender in San Francisco, called the premise that working with ICE will protect the community misguided. Since 2014, San Francisco has stopped working with ICE and violent crime has plummeted since. So, too, have urban crime rates across the board, Ugarte said, despite having vibrant sanctuary city laws, because criminal activity is not closely tied to immigration status or place of birth.
He cited a New York University and University of Chicago study of the federal "Secure Communities" policy in 2014, which found no meaningful relationship between increased deportations and crime rates.
Those in the minority who spoke in favor of changing the policy said they were scared to sleep in their own beds at night. Rick Lock, Bambi Larson's cousin, said he was grappling with outrage and shock after his family member was violently taken away.
"It occurred to me that this is a game of Russian roulette," he said. "We don't know, when we release one of these people, what's gonna happen."
Another county resident said, "The people of Santa Clara County are decent, honest, welcoming and generous, but our generosity does not extend to the criminal element who would murder us in our own beds."
Any amendments to the county's policy would fall under Senate Bill 54, which outlines a list of qualifying felonies. This includes murder, rape, arson, robbery, kidnapping, grand theft, carjacking and others, with the county ruling out misdemeanors. It would push for a warrant-based custody transfer system and urge federal authorities to consistently file warrants in all transfers.
"The individuals that prey on our community not only impact our city as a whole, but oftentimes their crimes are the very reason why some of our immigrants fled from native lands," Police Chief Eddie Garcia said.
"We should not be shielding the small percentage of undocumented individuals that cause pain and suffering by committing serious, violent or significant crimes in our communities from deportation," he said. "Let's stand together and collectively say that we've done everything we could to keep our residents and our police officers safe."
District Attorney Jeffrey Rosen called violent felons the "enemy of us all" and said between November 2014 and March 2019, about 600 undocumented criminals in the county who were released went on to commit additional violent offenses. He said a change in the notification policy would impact about 100 inmates a year.
"My office will find justice for Bambi Larson, but this new policy is not for Bambi Larson," he said in a statement. "(Immigrants) - and all their fellow county residents - deserve our assurance that we in these chambers are less concerned about political stances than their safety." As public comment pushed past four hours, speakers argued the changes would have a chilling effect on immigrant communities by making them even more reluctant to seek help from law enforcement, and said the amendment would tear families apart by deporting individuals instead of allowing them to serve their time and return home.
"If we wanted to keep the community safe, would we keep incarcerated everyone who has committed a violent crime?" Rev. Anna Lange-Soto said. "If a brown guy commits a violent felony, then a white gal, they should have the same penalty -- not one deported and one let go."
Groups on both sides of the debate argued their position would protect undocumented immigrants targeted by people in their own community, but immigrants who spoke at the podium opposed changes to the sanctuary policy.
"We're a national model for preventing racial profiling and upholding equality under the law. If we give ICE an inch, they'll take a mile," said Maricela Gutierrez, executive director of Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network.
At about 4 p.m., supervisors began their discussion of the board referral. District 4 Supervisor Susan Ellenberg led with her intention to vote "no," saying notifications would not create a significant improvement in public safety while shattering the trust of over 100,000 undocumented immigrants in the county. She was the only supervisor to ultimately vote against the referral.
In the case of Bambi Larson's alleged murderer, Ellenberg said notifications to ICE wouldn't have been triggered because he had been charged -- not convicted -- of a serious or violent felony, and notifications wouldn't have prevented the tragedy that spurred the discussion Tuesday.
"I believe that public safety would be minimally impacted, but the impact on tens of thousands of vulnerable law-abiding residents and on vulnerable children on our county would be substantial, traumatic and lasting," she said.
Board President Joe Simitian has long held that convicted felons who commit egregious crimes and are in the country illegally warrant limited cooperation with ICE and didn't pivot away from his views Tuesday night.
"We don't want to undermine the larger confidence in the community that our mostly hands-off policy has helped us create," Simitian said. "That being said, when we are given somebody who is undocumented the benefit of the doubt, and then they have committed and been convicted of a serious or violent felony, I'm prepared to say we need to talk about public safety and how we provide that."
While Simitian said he didn't have confidence ICE would be a good faith actor, he is interested in furthering the conversation about addressing serious or violent felons. He also advocated for a limited list of eligible crimes.
"We are living with an utterly dysfunctional immigration policy, which is built on a foundation of fabrications and hypocrisies. It is not a policy that people follow or support in great numbers," Simitian said.
Wasserman acknowledged staff members now face a "Herculean" task in crafting the proposed amendment. They will have to determine which county, state and federal databases allow ICE access to information about inmates and clarify how a notification system could function, but Cortese said the county has waded in ambiguity for years.
"I think we're in a legislative crisis right now... trying to figure out -- nine years after the fact, still -- what this notification language really means," Cortese said.
Cortese's proposal requests that the county to cast a wide net for feedback, including Sheriff Laurie Smith and Rosen; the San Jose Police Department; leaders from the Santa Clara County Police Chiefs' Association; the county's Office of Immigrant relations; and other "interested stakeholders." In addition to notifications, Cortese is seeking a framework for the safer transfer of convicted felons to ICE in instances where federal immigration officials provide a judicial warrant or court order.
Staff and the county counsel will return with the study in one month.
The proposals put forth Tuesday were hardly a new idea, with a similar policy proposed -- and ultimately scrapped -- less than four years ago. In November 2015, Cortese proposed amending the county's policies to honor ICE requests for notification on the planned release of a county inmate suspected of being in the country illegally. The policy would have only been limited to inmates convicted of a series or violent felony, and only if ICE has "probable cause" to remove them from the country.
The 2015 proposal came shortly after the shooting death of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, but there were already plenty of reason to revisit the county's policy. Numerous court rulings and changes to state law are not reflected in the county's 2011 immigration policies, and the wording itself -- that the county is willing to detain inmates after their release date for federal immigration officials -- is disingenuous and not at all practiced.
The board policy explicitly states it would honor these so-called detainer requests only if "all costs incurred by the county in complying with the ICE detainer shall be reimbursed." To date, ICE has not arranged to pay for the costs of these ICE holds, effectively nullifying the policy.