San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said Tuesday his department will end release transfer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a decision that comes amid public backlash and less than a week after the annual TRUTH Act Forum where dozens of residents spoke out overwhelmingly against the practice.
Bolanos said the decision, which takes effect immediately, was made in part due to his desire to maintain a trusting relationship with the public.
"It simply is not worth losing the trust of many members of the public by continuing to process these requests from ICE,'' Bolanos said in a statement. "This change is being made after we heard from hundreds of residents who shared their perspective on how we will all be safer when the entire community understands the Sheriff's Office is here to protect the public, not enforce immigration laws."
Supervisors Don Horsley, Board President David J. Canepa and Carole Groom spoke out in favor of Bolanos' decision.
Canepa called the decision "momentous and compassionate."
"He listened to the community and values all our residents regardless of immigration status," Canepa said. "This is a policy change that will keep families whole and I applaud Sheriff Bolanos for taking this action."
Horsley echoed Canepa and said the decision was "consistent with the sheriff's personal values and deep-rooted commitment" to protect all of San Mateo, including immigrants.
Groom thanked the sheriff "for listening to the public and taking their comments very seriously and adopting a new policy."
"We thank the Sheriff for working collaboratively with the Board of Supervisors and his quick implementation of this important change, which we support and believe is in the best interest of the county as a whole," Groom said.
Sarah Lee, a Community Advocate at Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and SMCCIR collaborator, described the Sheriff’s decision as "a huge victory that could not have been done without the amazing and courageous testimonies of people who've been impacted."
She said that because many ICE transfers happen "in the shadows" of jails and detention centers, public awareness has long relied on people sharing their stories.
"This has been the ask for the past four years, at least. So it's been years of organizing from the community."
In 2020, the Sheriff's Office reported they released 15 immigrants to ICE, which accounted for 62% of all Bay Area transfers and more than any other individual county.
In an interview with the Pulse last week, Bolanos justified the departments' transfers to ICE due to their criminal convictions.
"Pursuant to SB 54, the California Values Act, each one of these individuals had qualifying convictions," he said. "Per the law, we responded to a request for notification from ICE and they came to pick them up."
According to Bolanos, examples of the crimes committed by these individuals include kidnapping, lewd and lascivious acts towards a child under the age of 14 and assault with deadly weapons.
"For me, at least, the process does more harm than it does good," Supervisor Warren Slocum told the Pulse after last week's forum. While he said he appreciated the Sheriff's commitment to public safety, Slocum added, "I would counter by saying that other counties have done this non-cooperation with ICE approach, and I believe my research shows that they continue to be safe places.
"I think the bigger question is, how do you really ensure safe communities? It's not just through policing, as you know. It's about jobs, it's about education, it's about opportunities for families and for people to get ahead."
Hours before the county's TRUTH Act Forum, community members and advocates gathered outside the San Mateo Superior Courthouse to protest Bolanos’ continued cooperation with ICE. Among those in attendance, were several who were personally impacted by ICE transfers approved by San Mateo County.
Nora Melendez, a longtime resident of East Palo Alto, spoke about her husband, Sergio, who was arrested in December 2018 and within 48 hours was transferred to ICE custody. Melendez posted his bail so that he could return home to his family — but upon his release he was picked up by immigration officials instead.
"I was not notified. I didn't know where he was," Melendez told the Pulse over the phone. For several days, she said, Sergio was shuttled back and forth between different ICE facilities with little explanation. A mistake nearly resulted in his being deported to Mexico, though he's originally from El Salvador. For eight months, Sergio's only contact with his wife and three young children was through phone calls.
"When somebody is up and disappears one day, the kids notice," said Melendez. "We definitely saw the effects of his absence on them. They were very much aware that something was different. And that when he came back, it was a possibility that he would just be gone again. So they were always worried."
Melendez, who was undocumented for much of her childhood and has become a vocal advocate for immigration reform, said she understands "what it feels like to have to have to kind of live in the shadows of society.
"Part of the issue here with ICE and immigration in this country is that just our community doesn't feel comfortable walking around freely in the new place that they have made their homes."
Tovis Page, a minister in training and 30-year resident of San Mateo County, also spoke during last week's rally, saying it was her fourth TRUTH Act Forum and, she hoped, her last.
"The county website says that the county provides for the health and welfare of all people within its borders. It doesn't say all citizens or even all free citizens. It says all people within its borders," she said. "Voluntarily transferring immigrants to ICE who have served their time and have been deemed eligible for release is blatantly discriminatory and runs counter to who we say we are as a county."
Santa Clara County has taken a firm stance against cooperating with ICE and emphasized its support for all residents no matter their immigration status. County leaders reiterated that position in 2019 as ICE raids were rampant across the country.
"Immigration raids and deportations put undocumented families in fear, which limits their ability to become productive members of the community," Supervisor Cindy Chavez said at the time. "Residents of this county, regardless of immigration status, must be allowed to thrive and contribute to the greater good."
In June 2019, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to reject changing course and notifying ICE of the release of county jail inmates suspected to be in the country illegally.
An estimated more than 130,000 people were living in the county as of 2019.
The county has established a Rapid Response Network, a 24/7 hotline where people can report ICE activity, which can be accessed by calling 408-290-1144.