Trump administration threatens to subpoena Sonoma County over immigration policy

The Department of Justice says the county might be violating federal grant requirements by not cooperating with federal immigration agents.|

Sonoma County was again targeted by the Trump administration Wednesday, with the Department of Justice questioning the legality of the county’s refusal to fully cooperate with federal immigration agents.

Under threat of subpoena, the DOJ demanded documents related to sanctuary policies from 23 local governments across the country including Berkeley, San Francisco and the state of California.

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a press release announcing the subpoena warnings. “We have seen too many examples of the threat to public safety represented by jurisdictions that actively thwart the federal government’s immigration enforcement - enough is enough.”

The information demanded by the DOJ includes all “documents reflecting any orders, directives, instructions, or guidance to … law enforcement employees” from September 2015 to January 2018.

County officials characterized the documents requested as public information.

It’s the third time this month and fifth time in the past four months the Trump administration has taken public aim at Sonoma County’s immigration policies through Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DOJ.

Earlier this month the acting ICE director called out Sonoma County’s lack of cooperation with federal immigration agents during a Fox News interview. On Jan. 10, four of the 98 7-Elevens targeted in a nationwide immigration sweep were located in Sonoma County.

At issue now is a 2016 federal grant for $48,297 Sonoma County received to fund a digital evidence-management system, interview room equipment and digital video storage at the Sheriff’s Office.

The DOJ first contended in mid-November that those funds were dependent on a federal law that requires local law enforcement to share information on citizenship and immigration status with federal authorities.

While the Sheriff’s Office does ask for a person’s country of origin on booking forms at the Sonoma County Jail, deputies do not inquire about immigration status, said Sgt. Spencer Crum, sheriff’s spokesman.

Jail officials, Crum said, cannot provide ICE agents with information not collected.

The sparring between the Trump administration and Sonoma County began during the October fires when acting ICE Director Thomas Homan criticized the Sheriff’s Office the day after a conservative website erroneously linked an arson suspect - a homeless man alleged to have lit a warming fire in Sonoma - to the October wildfires that killed 24 people in the county and burned more than 137 square miles.

On Nov. 15, the DOJ first inquired about Sonoma County’s compliance with federal law in respect to the federal grant.

Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein responded Dec. 6 with a copy of the sheriff’s policy on immigration status. In the cover letter, Goldstein said he did not agree Congress made compliance with the immigration statute a condition of federal funding. Even so, the county was in not in violation of federal law, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office’s main communication with federal immigration authorities is through the fingerprint database managed by the FBI. When a person is booked in jail their fingerprints are entered into the system.

If the prints match those of a person flagged by ICE, an agent will send a request for notification of the date and time of an inmate’s release. Prior to Aug. 18 the Sheriff’s Office responded to every notification request.

But since Sheriff Rob Giordano decided to limit communication with federal immigration authorities to only individuals convicted of serious and violent crimes outlined by the 2013 California Trust Act - plus about a dozen other crimes selected by the sheriff - jail officials have responded to less than 40 percent of ICE notification requests.

For the county counsel’s office, not providing ICE agents with the date and time of an inmate’s release doesn’t violate the federal law as the DOJ asserts.

“The code section is limited,” Deputy County Counsel Petra Bruggisser said. “You have to let the government know immigration status, but not release information.”

Since Senate Bill 54, the sanctuary state law, took effect Jan. 1, counties across the state have a uniform policy of how they can and can’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The law also negated Giordano’s provision to cooperate with ICE on a dozen crimes outside those defined by the Trust Act.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203.

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