Sticking with a longstanding policy, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 Tuesday to reject changing course and notifying federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the release of county jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally.
The unanimous decision, which is in line with a recommendation from the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, comes after county executives, legal counsel and immigrant rights groups called any working relationship with ICE a bad idea that would erode trust with an already vulnerable community. The county would have to blindly trust immigration officials on claims that an inmate in county custody is in the country illegally, which is prone to errors and could subject the county to lawsuits.
"Our county has long been a progressive beacon on this issue and now is not the time to suddenly embrace an agency does that does not respect basic human rights and frequently gets citizenship details wrong, subjecting our county to liability," said Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O'Neal.
The board voted in April to consider a policy for the county to provide ICE with the date and time of release of inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. The policy would be limited to those inmates who had been convicted of a serious or violent felony, amounting to an estimated 100 to 150 inmates each year. The county's current policy ignores these requests, rejecting 6,243 notification requests between November 2014 and March 2019.
The idea came as a direct response to the killing of 59-year-old Bambi Larson, a San Jose woman who was stabbed to death in her home. The suspect, Carlos Arevalo-Carranza, is in the U.S. illegally, and had 10 prior convictions in recent years, ICE officials told the media outlets shortly after the death.
But a May 30 letter sent to the board of supervisors by Palo Alto Human Relations Commissioners Steven Lee and the Rev. Kaloma Smith on behalf of the commission asked the county to reject collaborating with ICE in any way. The Palo Alto commissioners on May 9 voted 5-1, with Gabe Kralik dissenting and Jill O'Nan absent, to officially oppose the county policy changes regarding civil detainer requests.
Such a change "treats individuals differently based on documentation status; imposes additional penalties for individuals who have already paid their debt to society by completing their (jail or prison) sentence; and/or results in an overall net decrease in public safety by undermining the public trust our respective local governments and law enforcement agencies have earned within our immigrant community and the community at large," they wrote.
District Attorney Jeff Rosen and local law enforcement agencies — represented by Mountain View Police Chief Max Bosel — however, supported the idea of the limited coordination with ICE, calling it an important public safety policy that would remove dangerous criminals from the community. Rosen released a statement before the meeting calling ICE notifications a "balanced approach" that weighs the concerns of the immigrant community against the risk of allowing undocumented residents convicted of serious or violent felonies to stay in the country.
Bosel, who mostly deferred to Rosen, argued that the coordinated transfer of serious and violent felons into ICE custody means immigration enforcement agents won't have to raid neighborhood communities in order to make arrests. He said the immigrant community is fearful of such raids, which can lead to "incidental contacts" with undocumented people who wouldn't otherwise be contacted by federal immigration authorities.
"Notifying ICE and providing ICE agents the ability to take custody of individuals in a secure jail would likely reduce the amount of ICE operations in local communities, thereby reducing the probability of these incidental contacts," Bosel wrote.
But the Palo Alto commissioners argued the policy changes would likely undermine public safety by eroding public trust in and cooperation with local law enforcement.
"The tragic murder of Bambi Larson would not have been prevented had the proposed changes been in effect. A number of studies indicate that undocumented individuals are less, not more, likely to commit a serious or violent crime and are also less likely to be recidivists or commit additional crimes than citizens," they wrote, citing a January 2019 Cato Institute study and a 2015 report by the National Association of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the integration of immigrants into American society.
Studies also show that cooperation with ICE makes communities less safe because of the chilling effect it has on immigrant populations, 70% of whom are less likely to report crimes, engage with or seek law-enforcement assistance or use vital public services, the commissioners wrote, citing an April 2018, article in the Washington Post by University of California, San Diego Associate Professor Tom Wong.
At least three supervisors showed interest in notifying ICE of the release of inmates suspected of being in the country illegally, but actually putting that policy into practice was seen as untenable. The county had no way of verifying whether federal immigration officials had accurate information on the inmates, and ICE is an agency known for "aggressive and unscrupulous enforcement tactics" that stoke fear and undermine community trust, according to county officials.
Wasserman, originally a proponent of ICE notifications, made clear from the outset at the June 4 meeting that he planned to reverse course. He said the county's inability to determine legal status of inmates is "unfortunate and disappointing," but is a reality that prevents him from supporting his own proposal.
"After much investigation and research our county counsel, law enforcement, DA, public defender and numerous immigrant rights-related organizations have proven that there is no practical and legal way of knowing if a person in our custody is truly undocumented," Wasserman said. "And for that reason I withdraw my suggestion of notifying ICE."
Because of California's state sanctuary immigration policy, SB 54, the county is prohibited from asking inmates about their immigration status. County Executive Jeff Smith said the inability to independently verify ICE's claims on the immigrant status of inmates is a major cause for concern, given that the agency has been wrong in over 3,000 cases in the last year.
"By operating without adequate information the county is putting itself at risk because it is relying completely on ICE information, which we know has mistakes in it," he said.
County Executive Smith said allowing notifications would also be tantamount to creating a racial profiling program, and that counties that do permit notifications on inmate releases are showing a clear bias against Latinos. In 2018, San Mateo County was asked for notifications on 735 inmates, 7% of whom were eventually picked up by ICE agents. Of those inmates picked up, all but two were of Latin-American descent, Smith said.
Supervisor Mike Wasserman's early announcement changed the tenor of the packed crowd of attendees at the June 4 meeting, with close to 160 speakers mostly supporting Wasserman in his rejection of ICE notifications. Most speakers rapidly approached the dais and thanked the board for its decision not to work with ICE, even if the decision was reached due to practical limitations rather than a moral stance against a federal crackdown on illegal immigration.
Board President Joe Simitian, who represents North County, said he agreed that the county should not be working hand in glove with an agency he would describe as institutionally racist, and that he would never advocate for cooperation with ICE when inmates are facing traffic violations, misdemeanors or even the bulk of chargeable felonies in California. But for those convicted of serious and violent felonies and in county custody, he said it does make sense to "step up and engage in some measure of cooperation with immigration officials."
Despite his dissent, Simitian said he voted in the majority in order to make it a unanimous vote not to turn over any inmates to federal immigration officials without a judicial arrest warrant.
"I think there's some value in putting this issue to rest in a 5-0 vote today," he said.