Advocates demand immigration sanctuary in Sonoma County
A collective of immigration advocates is demanding the Board of Supervisors approve an ordinance to make Sonoma County an immigration sanctuary, severing all ties between the Sheriff’s Office and federal immigration authorities.
In a letter, sent to supervisors March 15, they argue that the Sheriff’s Office’s practice of providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement with information on jailed non-citizens is costly, unjust, and unnecessary under the law.
“We urgently request the Board of Supervisors to consider adopting a Sanctuary Ordinance for Sonoma County, to guarantee the safety and security of our immigrant and undocumented families and neighbors,“ says the letter, whose signatories include the Raices Collective, Corazón Healdsburg and North Bay Organizing Project.
The sanctuary designation would change the current policy, which allows Sheriff’s Office detention facilities to send the release dates and times of inmates to ICE at its request, if those people are convicted or charged with certain crimes.
The letter followed the Board of Supervisors’ March 2 community forum on cooperation with ICE, during which Sheriff Mark Essick reported that these requests from ICE for information on people of interest were down 75% in 2021 compared to the prior year.
In response to 117 of these requests from ICE, the Sheriff’s Office initially said during the forum that it provided information about the release of 33 people ICE suspected were non-citizens — something Essick said is in accordance with recent California legislation that limits coordination between county agencies and the feds. The Sheriff’s Office later clarified it provided information about 43 people in 2021. None of those instances led to an arrest by ICE.
Still defense attorneys, immigration activists and members of the community counter, saying that while state law allows the Sheriff’s Office to provide information, it does not require it.
They argue the county should cease the practice altogether, as at least fiveother counties across the state already have, because coordination with federal immigration authorities breeds public distrust and fear, traumatizing communities.
“Since there were 33 release dates given and no arrests made, a good argument could be made we should not be giving those 33 dates with no result at the end,” Sonoma County Public Defender Brian Morris said during the community forum. “The only result is … a lot of anxiety in the community, a lot of anxiety for the person who is incarcerated, and for their family.”
Sanctuary status would curtail this anxiety, advocates argue. Sanctuary jurisdictions refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Alongside a sanctuary status ordinance, the letter also requests an audit of the expenses to all county agencies incurred by considering, processing and responding to ICE notification requests.
Officials say that handling the ICE requests requires the work of two full-time employees, at least.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins supported the ideas during the early March meeting.
After receiving the letter on March 15, Board of Supervisors Chair James Gore agreed the board would place the topic of a sanctuary ordinance on its agenda, but likely not before July, after the start of the new fiscal year.
ICE notification discretionary, not mandatory
During the March 2 forum, Essick told the Board of Supervisors that his office saw “a precipitous drop” in ICE requests for release notification on Sonoma County inmates.
While the requests from the federal agency decreased from 466 in 2020 to 117 in 2021, the Sheriff’s Office responded with 43 notifications to ICE of a pending inmate release (33 of whom were released from custody before the end of 2021). This represented a 25% drop from 2020’s 57 returned notifications.
Essick suggested the decline in ICE requests is likely due to a change in federal leadership and its overhaul of immigration enforcement priorities for federal agencies. This change, he said, “aligned very well with what we are doing in Sonoma County.”
In response to criticisms of the Sheriff’s Office correspondence with ICE during the forum’s public comment section, Essick said, “There seems to be some confusion and misinformation out there. … The Sheriff’s Office does not pick up the telephone and call ICE.”
Rather, he said, his office is operating in accordance with state laws like Senate Bill 54, or the California Values Act.