The Orange County Sheriff’s Department sought to sidestep a California law designed to limit law enforcement coordination with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying it would put the date an inmate will be released on its website.
“This action will enhance communication between the Sheriff’s Department and our law enforcement partners to remove dangerous offenders from our community,” the department said in a statement Tuesday, openly challenging California State Bill 54, otherwise known as the California Values Act, which restricts police communication with federal immigration authorities.
But critics say the measure will cast too wide a net and hand ICE information on the whereabouts of undocumented immigrants who may never be charged with a crime.
The move comes as California battles the federal government over how local authorities cooperate with federal immigration agencies. SB 54 came into effect on Jan. 1, following intense criticism from the Trump administration over sanctuary policies shielding immigrants from increased risk of detention by ICE. On March 6, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging a trio of state laws, including SB 54, violate the Constitution.
On Tuesday, Orange County’s all-Republican Board of Supervisors voted to join the lawsuit, the Associated Press reported.
Inmate information is already publicly available in a database called “Who’s in Jail” for Orange County, south of Los Angeles. But the new rule will populate those profiles with the date an inmate will be released from custody. It won’t include their immigration status, Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
But the information will be available for anyone released, “whether their sentence was served or charges were dropped,” Carrie Braun, a department spokeswoman, told The Post.
This raises the possibility that people whose charges are dropped could nevertheless fall into ICE custody, critics say.
It would “give ICE the ability to basically net all the people who pass through our jails,’” said Annie Lai, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of California at Irvine.
State Sen. Kevin de Leon, a Democrat, who authored SB 54, disputed the assertion that the bill harms the ability of law enforcement to hand over dangerous undocumented immigrants to ICE.
“What it does do is prevent law enforcement from acting as ICE agents, hunting down and rounding up hard-working immigrants in our communities,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post.
The bill includes provisions to lift restrictions on coordinating with ICE if law enforcement encounters major criminals, like violent offenders or drug traffickers.
Barnes said the new rule will safeguard the community.
“Our focus is on criminals, not on the community,” he said, and reiterated the policy does not mean they will pursue and detain people suspected to be in the country illegally.
If they are released and reoffend, it was a preventable crime, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which argues for more restrictive immigration policies across the United States.
“The only people [SB 54] protects is criminal aliens who are deportable,” she said, adding that lawmakers are “hellbent” on punishing law enforcement rather than criminals.
De Leon disagreed.
“The notion that the California legislature is looking to punish our local law enforcement is nonsense,” he said. “California is not in the business of deporting people — that’s ICE’s job.”
A number of studies have concluded immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than U.S. citizens, though a 2009 study co-authored by Vaughan disputed those findings due to “contrary information” and a lack of reliable data.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has been the beneficiary of tighter immigration enforcement.
The department estimates it generates $27 million in revenue annually from a contract with ICE to house detainees waiting for deportation proceedings, Braun said. The original contract in 2010 called for 838 beds. That increased last May by 120 beds, Braun said.
More detainees means more revenue, which is used to enrich the department’s general fund, a spokesperson told SCPR last May.
Braun told The Post that the new department policies regarding public release dates were not affected by that contract or the revenue it brings. ICE did say how much it has provided to the department.
ICE, which has been critical of SB 54, said the sheriff’s department’s new policy is encouraging, agency deputy director Tom Homan said in a statement.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the department “have been a valued partner of ICE for many years,” he said.
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