Advocates demand immigration sanctuary in Sonoma County

A collective of immigration advocates sent a letter March 15 demanding the Board of Supervisors sever all ties between the Sheriff’s Office and federal immigration authorities, halting the practice of giving ICE information on non-citizens in jail.|

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.”

A graph created by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s notifications it received from ICE regarding detained individuals and responses returned to ICE. In 2021, ICE attempted to learn information about 105 individuals through 117 requests, and 43 responses were issued to ICE, according to Sheriff’s Office data. (Graph courtesy of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office TRUTH Act forum)
A graph created by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s notifications it received from ICE regarding detained individuals and responses returned to ICE. In 2021, ICE attempted to learn information about 105 individuals through 117 requests, and 43 responses were issued to ICE, according to Sheriff’s Office data. (Graph courtesy of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office TRUTH Act forum)

Rather, he said, his office is operating in accordance with state laws like Senate Bill 54, or the California Values Act.

The law limits coordination between county detention facilities and federal immigration enforcement but does permit local law enforcement agencies to notify ICE of their inmate releases, which are public under certain circumstances.

In Sonoma County, these circumstances include whether the inmate in question has been convicted of violent felonies — but it also includes those convicted of some non-violent felonies and misdemeanors, or those not convicted, but only arrested and held to answer on some violent crimes.

Inmates subject to these exceptions include those living in the U.S. illegally, but also other non-citizens who are described as those who are legal permanent residents, DACA recipients, asylees, refugees, clients with different kinds of visas, youth with Special Immigrant Juvenile status, clients with Temporary Protected Status and others, according to the public defender’s office.

The California Values Act and other laws, however, establish the minimum protections from ICE that local law enforcement agencies must provide to people in their custody — not the ceiling.

“They keep saying, ‘We’re complying with SB 54,’” said Heather Wise, a local attorney who checks the legality of many ICE notification requests as an alternate public defender on the Sonoma County conflict panel. “What they mean is, they’re calling when we can, when it’s legal.”

“This is the bare minimum. The department can choose to do more,” added Bernice Espinoza, an immigration attorney with Corazón Healdsburg.

Release notifications have been referred to as “unofficial transfers” by groups like the ACLU and the San Diego Immigrants Rights Consortium, because “the end result is the same” as if they were direct transfers of custody: “county resources being used to facilitate the detention and deportation of San Diego community members.“

“The issue ... is that if the sheriff continues to cooperate with ICE under its discretion per SB 54, then our non-citizen clients will always be at the whim of fluctuating federal immigration policy,” said Deputy Public Defender Gamaliel Galindo, who specializes in the intersection of criminal and immigration law and similarly checks notification requests for legality.

Proof of this, Galindo said, has been increasing the number of requests from ICE to the county since the beginning of 2022, after a change to federal guidelines that “widened the net of those non-citizens that are an ICE enforcement priority” in late 2021.

“We are, this year, seeing an upward tick in the ICE notification requests,“ Galindo said at the community forum.

Several counties across California don’t experience these shifts according to transitions at the federal level because they have adopted policies refusing to notify ICE under any circumstances, including Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Humboldt, San Francisco and San Joaquin.

“We’re spending a lot of money, we’re exposing the county to liability, and ... it does put terror in the heart of non-citizens when they think of family getting deported,” Wise said.

The authors of the March 15 letter reiterated that the current policy negatively affects non-citizens, who may fear that if they are arrested they may be picked up by ICE due to Sheriff’s Office cooperation.

“Cooperation with ICE is not beneficial for any resident of our county, no matter what their citizenship status,” the letter states. “It creates fear for community members, and deters crime victims from reporting crimes. It endangers victims of domestic violence who want help but fear deportation.”

March 15, 2021 Letter to Board of Supervisors

Galindo with the public defender’s office added that the policy “creates a secondary punitive system for non-citizens.”

People without legal U.S. citizenship who have already served time in jail for an arrest or conviction may be punished again — through additional detention and deportation — if ICE is there to arrest them once they are released.

“Hence, non-citizens are often punished twice for their convictions, and their families suffer as a result,” he said.

Lasting trauma

While there have been fewer notifications to and apprehensions by ICE in recent years, those who have been the target of punitive immigration enforcement or who have had family members deported in the past are still reckoning with the impacts.

Alex Camarillo was arrested by a joint ICE-Sheriff’s Office task force in 2007 and transferred to federal custody in San Francisco, where he was threatened with deportation — despite living in Sonoma County since he was 9.

He spent the next decade fighting his removal order and dealing with the fallout, including impacts on his mental and physical health.

“It gives me the chills just remembering everything that I’ve been through,” Camarillo said. “I’m just a student who is working to have a better life, (I’ve) not been a criminal.”

Alondra Marroquin’s father, Jesus Marroquin, was arrested in 2008 by Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies after forgetting his license at home while driving to the store. The county jail then transferred him to federal custody because he was living in the country illegally.

Because her mother and brother were also in the U.S. illegally, 13-year-old Marroquin was the only family member to see her father in jail, wearing an inmate uniform and in tears at the prospect of being forced to leave his family.

That would be the last time Marroquin, now 26, saw her father for the next five years.

In the years since, her family struggled to make ends meet without her father’s additional income as a day laborer. And, as a result, Marroquin would often not see her mother because of the hours she spent working two jobs to support her family.

“When my dad was deported, I just remember my mom... she struggled a lot,” Marroquin said. “She never really expressed it but I could tell, you know?”

Marroquin described the fear her family, specifically her mother, felt while running routine errands because of their worries tied to their immigration status. Marroquin’s family didn’t just fear being pulled over; they feared applying for a credit card, filing paperwork with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and returning clothes.

“We kind of grew up with that fear towards the police,” Marroquin said, “not because our family were bad people or anything, but just because of their undocumented status.”

At 15, Marroquin got her own job in a restaurant to help support her family. But while her father’s deportation had affected so much of her life, she felt unable to talk to anybody about it because the memories would reduce her to tears.

“There were a few times where I did tell people what happened, but no one really actually understood what it meant or how bad it impacted me,” Marroquin said.

Contact Chase Hunter at and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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