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.
Those requests for information about a Sonoma County jail inmate happened about every other day in January, according to the jail.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have to respond, but it does, giving ICE about 24 hours notice before an inmate walks out the door. It has done so four times since Jan. 1, officials said Thursday.
It’s unclear whether immigration officers contacted those people and if they were detained or deported. ICE did not respond last week to a request for data on local detentions.
Freitas is facing pressure from a community advisory council to stop responding to ICE except for serious or violent felons.
Immigrant advocates and critics of Sonoma County Jail policies argue that working with ICE puts people — including those never convicted of crimes — at risk of being swept up into expedited deportation proceedings. They say it separates families, tearing at the social fabric of a county that relies heavily on foreign workers.
Freitas said he believes his policies provide balance.
Field deputies don’t ask about immigration status or participate in federal raids designed to capture undocumented immigrants, unless the person is the target of a criminal investigation.
“If you call 911, the deputies are never going to ask you your immigration status, they’ll never know,” Freitas said. “I try to reassure people and sometimes I need to do it one person at a time. This has been our longstanding policy. Nothing has changed.”
But he believes cooperation with ICE in the jail will keep criminals out of Sonoma County. Plus, a person’s release date is a matter of public record available to anyone who calls, and Freitas has said he’s not inclined to single out federal agents by refusing to provide them with information.
“If it’s a tool we can use on people who have committed crimes, I think it’s a tool we should use,” Freitas said. “But I don’t want to get more involved in immigration enforcement.”
Notifying ICE about inmates is routine in Sonoma County. Other counties take a different approach.
In San Francisco, the jail received 41 requests from ICE for release date information during the last six months of 2016, according to Eileen Hirst, chief of staff for Sheriff Vicki Hennessy.
There, jail staff use a multi-step test that allows notifications for people with recent violent or serious felony convictions who have been held to answer by a judge on a current felony charge that brought them back to jail, Hirst said. That means a judge has decided there’s enough evidence for a trial.
Of 41 requests, “we did not respond to any of them. Sheriff Hennessy herself reviews each one and so far none have qualified under the sanctuary ordinance,” Hirst said.
In Sonoma County, there were 1,042 inmates in the jail last Thursday. Despite the trove of information collected when someone is booked, the jail doesn’t track the number of inmates who are undocumented immigrants. Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who runs the jail, said his staff does not keep statistics on immigration status because it would serve no purpose to daily operations.
In Sonoma County, federal officers can visit the jail and review an inmate’s detention file, which includes a variety of documents including forms sent to foreign consulates where a person indicates whether they are a U.S. citizen.
ICE agents also can request to interview an inmate. Starting this year, California jails now must give inmates the opportunity to refuse the interview or request a lawyer be present because of a law called the Truth Act, designed to create transparency about how ICE interacts with county jail inmates.
Jails also must notify individuals, plus their family and a lawyer, when ICE has asked for information about their release.
Jerry Threet, the county’s law enforcement auditor, said the current jail policy assumes ICE officers are making decisions based on an individual’s criminal history and public safety. Federal immigration laws are civil matters and not necessarily criminal. A prior deportation can elevate a person to ICE’s priority list.
“Many people feel that even if they experience a crime they won’t pick up a phone because they don’t want to be deported,” Threet said. “That particular fear is not well-founded, but if you end up being arrested and going to jail, you might end up being deported.”
Threet said he plans to craft a recommendation for the sheriff about ways to limit the notifications to better reflect what the community wants. He will likely include exceptions for people involved in serious or violent crimes.
Threet said he’s heard over and over from immigrants in Sonoma County who fear for their livelihoods and their ability to keep their families together — fears amplified by Trump’s executive orders directing law enforcement agencies to cooperate with the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
“They’re terrified and they’re very convinced they shouldn’t cooperate on any level with the sheriff because they could end up on a deportation list,” Threet said. “It’s a real problem, not only from the human side, which is heartbreaking, but it’s a law enforcement problem. If you have a crime that’s happening and your witnesses are immigrants, how are you going to investigate?”
Doubts over how it works
Immigrant advocates question whether the jail’s policy functions as a workaround to federal and state law. Santa Rosa immigration attorney Richard Coshnear has said he’s heard reports of people being picked up by ICE at the jail moments after being released.
“I believe they (ICE agents) are waiting for them right at the place where they’re booked out, get property back, sign they got their property,” Coshnear said. “Before they get out the door of the jail, ICE is right there.”
ICE’s notification program replaced Secure Communities, a federal initiative that caused jails to keep inmates beyond their release dates on civil immigration holds so they could be picked up by federal officers. The holds were voluntary but jails, including Sonoma County’s, widely complied.
Federal judges found that keeping people in local jails for civil immigration matters violated Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful detention, and the practice ended about two years ago. California’s Truth Act, which went into effect in 2014, also bars the detention of people based on immigration status alone.
A new bill under consideration in the state Legislature, Senate Bill 54, could further curb California’s involvement in immigration enforcement.
Called the California Values Act, the proposed legislation would place limits on how much local policing agencies and jails could cooperate with federal immigration officials — effectively halting most forms of cooperation and stopping even an email from jail staff with release date information.
Freitas is staunchly against the bill. He says the notification program is a valuable tool for his office to communicate information about criminals in the county. The bill creates a blanket prohibition without exceptions for serious or violent criminals, which he feels is crucial to public safety.
Meanwhile, immigrant communities are preparing for the worst.
Gervacio Peña, board president of the Graton Day Labor Center, said the center has created “community defense committees” to educate people about their rights when confronted by immigration officers. It is also preparing to help people swept up in the deportation process — from finding legal representation to handling belongings left behind.
He was with about a dozen Sonoma County residents who traveled to the South Bay last week at a convening of immigrant labor advocates to talk tactics.
Peña said he’s lived in Sonoma County for 30 years. Before laws like the Trust Act and the ability to get a driver’s license, many undocumented immigrants lived in fear of being discovered during the mundane stuff of life, such as driving around town.
That fear is back.
“I know my rights and I have a green card, but I’m concerned for others who don’t know their rights,” Peña said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.