By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A new state law that seeks to limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents may be having a significant impact in Sonoma County.
From Jan. 1 to Jan. 28, the number of inmate transfers from the jail to federal immigration custody were down 64 percent compared to the same period last year, according to Sheriff Steve Freitas.
Another result of enforcing what’s known as the Trust Act, Freitas said, is his office’s rejection of 28 of the 38 federal holds that immigration agents have requested over the same period. Before the Trust Act was passed, jail staff honored every immigration hold federal agents requested, he said.
If similar numbers surface in the coming months, the sheriff’s new Trust Act policies could represent a big blow to a controversial federal immigration program that trolls for undocumented immigrants in county jails.
Local immigration advocates have welcomed the change and are praising the Sheriff’s Office’s immediate efforts to implement the new California law.
“I think that’s wonderful,” said Santa Rosa immigration attorney and advocate Richard Coshnear on the reduction in immigration holds. “It means that 74 percent of the families will not be split apart as a result of these changes.”
Freitas cautioned that the figures represent only a month’s worth of data and said it was too early to tell whether it constitutes a trend. The sheriff said he’ll be able to better gauge the impact of the new policy “three or four months from now.”
Freitas is working with the immigrant community to craft a permanent local policy that adheres to the new law. The guidance in place now is an interim policy.
The shift is a significant one for Freitas, who last year opposed the Trust Act on the grounds that it conflicted with some legal interpretations of the federal government’s immigration hold policy. Freitas said then he feared it would force him to choose between violating state or federal statutes.
But Freitas withdrew his opposition to the Trust Act about month before Gov. Jerry Brown signed it in early October. Freitas says matter-of-factly that the Trust Act is the law of California, and as a state “constitutional officer” he must adhere to it.
“It’s not really a change, it’s following the law like I’m supposed to,” he said.
The Trust Act seeks to resolve what critics, including immigrant advocates, say is a massive overreach in a federal program known as Secure Communities.
It was meant to target undocumented immigrants who had committed serious and violent crimes by placing federal holds on them as they passed through local jails. The detentions, tracked by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are known as “ICE holds.”
But such holds also resulted in the detention of countless immigrants who were in jail only on minor offenses such as traffic violations. In some cases, legal immigrants and even U.S. citizens have been put on ICE holds.
The Trust Act gives county sheriffs discretion over which federal detainer requests to honor, allowing them to focus resources on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.
None of the 28 ICE holds Freitas’ office rejected in January involved people who were charged with or convicted of violent or serious felonies.
“The Trust Act does not apply to serious or violent felons,” Freitas said. “Serious and violent felons are still being held on ICE detainers.”
Freitas said he does not know exactly how many immigration holds his office handled last year, saying coming up with the number would require some research.
Freitas said he is considering measures that could broaden his interim policy, including the formation of an appeal process for legal residents or U.S. citizens who become ensnared by an ICE hold. That proposal came out of a meeting he held last month with a group of immigrant advocates and attorneys.
Freitas said his office also is reviewing an Alameda County policy that would restrict ICE holds to felony convictions.
Freitas said his main opposition last year to the Trust Act was due to federal code that appeared to require local enforcement to honor all ICE holds.
Legal opinions by other officials, including the state Attorney General Kamala Harris, concluded the holds were requests and not mandatory.
Freitas said he consistently has supported greater latitude for local law enforcement on immigration holds.
“I like the idea of having discretion,” he said, “and I tried to change that language,” he added, referring to county lobbying efforts.
The atmosphere of local cooperation around the Trust Act comes at a time when the Sheriff’s Office and Freitas himself are taking heat from some in the Latino community over the shooting death last year of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.
Protests in the aftermath of the deputy-involved shooting have spotlighted what some Latino leaders say is a broken relationship with law enforcement and local immigrant communities.
Critics have questioned whether the sheriff’s work in implementing the Trust Act is a politically motivated response to the uproar. Freitas, who is up for re-election this year, strongly rejected that claim.
“It’s patently false,” he said, adding that he began changing many policies that affect the immigrant community back in 2011.
The changes include not contacting ICE agents for inmates booked for minor traffic offenses; being the first local law enforcement agency to not impound vehicles for a first-time offense of driving without a license; and spearheading the move by all local law enforcement agencies to accept foreign consular cards, such as Mexican matricula cards, as valid identification.
Also, Freitas said that when the Sheriff’s Office conducts joint operations with ICE to apprehend wanted suspects, the office does not allow ICE to detain or arrest people solely for civil immigration violations or low-level traffic infractions.
All those steps predate the Lopez shooting, he said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)