It all starts with a fingerprint.
A blue-gloved correctional officer presses the thumb, fingers and palm of every inmate booked into the Sonoma County Jail onto a glass plate, transmitting the digitized prints into databases that track people with criminal histories and previous contacts with law enforcement.
For undocumented immigrants booked into the jail, the biometric data triggers a process that could abruptly end their local criminal court case and put them in the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, for civil deportation proceedings.
The jail is at the center of the role Sonoma County law enforcement plays in immigration enforcement. In many ways it’s the worst place to end up for the estimated 30,000 people in Sonoma County unauthorized to live in the United States.
“There is a lot of fear that exists within the immigrant community — now ICE will meet you outside the jailhouse or wait for you at your home,” said Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center.
President Donald Trump revamped the mission of the federal immigration service in a Jan. 25 executive order, which scrapped former President Barack Obama’s avowed focus on undocumented immigrants that committed serious crimes. Trump broadened the mission to deport most immigrants that entered the country illegally and reinstated a Obama-era program, Secure Communities, that increases the use of local jails to find them.
James Schwab, a San Francisco-based spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said agents in Northern California haven’t changed the categories of people they target for deportation, yet. During the Obama administration, the agency said it focused on deporting the most serious and violent criminals.
Schwab said the agency is waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to give direction on how to implement the new mandate and who to prioritize for possible deportation. It appears clear agents will be called to investigate more people but they haven’t ramped up operations since Trump took office, he said.
“We conduct operations every day. It couldn’t be stepped up more,” Schwab said.
New California laws have limited the ways local police and sheriff agencies cooperate with immigration enforcement. The state’s driver’s license program legitimized thousands of motorists, allowing them to obtain licenses and stay out of jail. The Trust Act barred local jails from keeping people in jails solely based on immigration status.
Sonoma County supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council sent clear signals of support for undocumented people living here last week. Santa Rosa declared itself an “indivisible city” and barred city employees, including police, from using “city monies, resources or personnel to investigate, question, detect, detain or apprehend persons solely on the basis of a possible violation of immigration law.”
County supervisors reaffirmed a commitment to providing services to people regardless of immigration status. But they stopped short of urging Sheriff Steve Freitas to change how his field and correctional deputies should interface with immigration enforcement. Freitas is elected and has full autonomy to direct his department’s policies.
Under current jail policy, every inmate’s fingerprints are uploaded into databases used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify people who entered the country illegally. When ICE officers find someone of interest, they ask jail staff to notify the federal agency when that person is scheduled to be released on bail or set free.