Immigrant rights advocates on Tuesday pressed the county’s sheriff and Board of Supervisors to end the practice of releasing county inmates to federal immigration officials or notifying them when someone is about to get out of jail.
The plea came from dozens of speakers during an annual forum designed for the Sheriff’s Department to share information about its cooperation with the federal agency. The forum is required by state law.
San Diego County Interim Sheriff Anthony Ray told the Board of Supervisors and the packed crowd at the County Administration Building that the number of people turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement dropped from more than 1,100 inmate transfers five years ago to 18 inmates transferred last year.
When a person is arrested and determined not to be a legal citizen of the United States, ICE can request that the county jails transfer that person to them upon their release from local custody.
The Sheriff’s Department can comply with ICE requests if the inmate meets specific circumstances — including whether the inmate has been convicted of certain serious or violent felonies, such as child molestation or abuse, in the last 15 years.
Last year, the Sheriff’s Department complied with 80 requests to be notified when a person was being released from custody. Five years ago, the department complied with 597 of those requests.
Several speakers argued that the law gives the department discretion to comply, it does not mandate compliance. Critics say the deportations destroy families. Some shared horror stories of loved ones who died after they were deported, including one man who was kidnapped and tortured in Mexico.
Ray acknowledged the heartbreak. He also pointed out that there are the victims. Of the 18 people transferred to ICE last year, one was jailed for molesting a child under the age of 14, and another had committed domestic violence causing injury. Eight had been jailed for drug-sales-related charges, including two who had narcotics such as cocaine or opiates.
“Every story I’ve heard is compelling,” Ray said. “But there’s also the people who’ve been victimized by the actions of these people.”
The interim sheriff said the department will continue to honor ICE requests, but he is willing to consider reviewing each person’s case before the transfer.
“Who should be given a second chance? Who Just made a mistake, or who is a predator?” Ray said.
The annual forum is prompted by the Transparent Review of Unjust Transfer and Holds (TRUTH) Act. It’s one of three state laws regulating local law enforcement’s work with ICE.
According data Ray shared at the meeting, the department transferred 1,143 inmates to ICE in 2017. The number of transfers dropped to 266 inmates the following year in 2018, and rose by five in 2019.
It fell to 78 during 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when the jails were accepting fewer arrestees. Last year 18 inmates were transferred.
The declines follow a series of changes in state law further narrowing the rules for complying with ICE requests. Those include the TRUTH Act, which went into effect in 2017, and the Values Act, also referred to as Senate Bill 54 or SB 54, which went into effect the following year.
The department has made changes. For example, over the last five years, it stopped posting an inmate’s release date online — where ICE agents could see it and be waiting for the person outside their home. The department’s also posts online the compliance data it is required to report.
Before the forum, about 50 activists rallied outside the County Administration Building. Speaking to the crowd, Maria Chavez, a local immigration attorney, said the sheriff chooses to transfer individuals from county jail to ICE custody, even though not required to do so.
“These ICE transfers and notifications result in community members being deported and families being separated in our region,” said Chavez. “It means that individuals are punished twice for the exact same crime simply because they are immigrants and they were not born here.”
Flower Alvarez-Lopez, 34, said at the rally that her daughter’s father was deported in 2017 but did not return alive.
“The way he came back was in a body bag,” said Alvarez-Lopez, now a single mother. “He died in Tijuana where he didn’t have his family — his family is here in San Diego. That moment when I think of having to tell my daughter that her dad was dead, because of this whole process, this whole system that was really not meant to support our community… I can’t really describe in words that moment, because it obviously was so painful and deep.”
Several critics at the forum said that while the numbers have dropped, each number represents a family torn apart.
“The blood, the trauma caused by each of these notifications (to ICE) are on you,” one commenter said during the hearing. “You are choosing to harm our community and refusing to listen.”
Some speakers said community members might not call for law enforcement help if they fear a family member might ended up in ICE custody.
Several commenters accused the department of “colluding” with federal immigrations agencies, and some asked the department to no longer participate in task forces that include immigration officials.