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Traffic Stop Reveals Keeping Immigration Enforcement Separate From Police May Be Impossible

This summer, sheriff's deputies detained a couple, unauthorized to be in the United States. Then, Border Patrol showed up. If the sheriff's explanation of why is correct, it means federal agents could monitor information requests from local officers, and spring into action whenever there could be an immigration violation.

Sheriff Bill Gore / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies this summer pulled over an undocumented married couple and contacted Border Patrol, who took them into custody.

Now, the family has filed a claim with San Diego County, arguing the June traffic stop violated their constitutional and civil rights. They’re seeking $2 million in damages for separating family members and causing undue hardship. The claim is a precursor to a lawsuit. The county has 45 days to evaluate it and respond.

Sheriff’s Department policy prohibits deputies from stopping, detaining or questioning people to enforce immigration law. The department acknowledges deputies stopped the vehicle and contacted Border Patrol, but maintains they did not violate department policy because Border Patrol independently made the decision to dispatch agents to the scene.

If accurate, it would mean federal agents could monitor information requests from local officers, and spring into action whenever there could be an immigration violation.

And if local law enforcement agencies can freely share information with ICE and Border Patrol, and those federal agencies can dispatch agents without a request from local law enforcement agencies, it reveals a loophole in the in the state’s attempt to keep local law enforcement from enforcing immigration law.

The claim filed by the family comes two months after Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the California Values Act, or so-called “Sanctuary State” law, which limits the extent to which local law enforcement can cooperate with federal agencies for immigration enforcement purposes. Advocates for the bill called it the strongest legislation in the country when it comes to immigrant protections.

But the case of Carlos Nieblas-Ortiz and his wife Martha Valenzuela-Luna, the undocumented couple, demonstrates the limits of the state’s prohibition. Undocumented immigrants in the state remain vulnerable to getting swept up in enforcement efforts, even if they’re not suspected of crimes.

The state law also allows local law enforcement to work with feds on task forces, so long as the express purpose of the task force is not to enforce immigration law.

Nieblas-Ortiz and Valenzuela-Luna were driving with their teenage daughter near Mission Bay, when two San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies pulled them over. The deputies were on patrol as part of Operation Stonegarden – a federally-funded task force aimed at stopping the flow of drugs over the border and coastline.

Deputies stopped the car for what they said was a cracked windshield. They searched the car, but found no drugs. Instead of issuing the family a citation and allowing them to leave, however, deputies called Border Patrol and held them until agents arrived on scene.

Agents detained Ortiz and Luna and transferred them to ICE custody. They were sent to separate detention facilities where they remained for more than a month. They’ve since been released.

In the claim Ortiz filed last month, he alleges the Sheriff’s Department violated family members’ constitutional and civil rights by stopping them on the pretext of a cracked windshield then calling Border Patrol to check their immigration status. Deputies unlawfully detained the family by holding them for 45 minutes until Border Patrol arrived, he argues.

The County has 45 days to respond to the law suit by deciding whether to settle, formally deny it, or decline to formally deny it and allow the family to take further legal action.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department said it cannot comment on pending claims.

When we first reported Ortiz and Luna’s story in August, the Sheriff’s department acknowledged its deputies had contacted Border Patrol, but said they did so to ask about how frequently Ortiz and Luna crossed the border, an indicator of possible drug trafficking, a department spokesman said at the time.

The spokesperson said the Border Patrol agents, on their own accord, then came to the scene to investigate Ortiz’ and Luna’s connection to a criminal investigation.

That’s been the last mention of any criminal investigation. A judge didn’t mention it at Ortiz’ bond hearing, and neither the Sheriff’s Department nor Border Patrol has provided evidence Ortiz or Luna were involved in one.

Gore has since acknowledged the couple was not, in fact, smuggling narcotics.

“It turns out they weren’t smuggling drugs. That was an exceptional case,” he said.

But earlier this month, Gore tried to clarify how, exactly, the Border Patrol agents ended up at the scene in the first place. He said his deputies contacted Border Patrol to obtain information from a database only they had access to, at which point Border Patrol agents “self-deployed.”

In an attempt to verify the department’s version of events, VOSD in July filed a Public Records Act request for the audio recording of the radio traffic on the day of the incident.

The department denied the request on grounds that it relates to a law enforcement investigation, even though the department made no arrests and issued no citations.

If local law enforcement agencies can freely share information with ICE and Border Patrol, and those federal agencies can dispatch agents without a request from local law enforcement agencies, it highlights a loophole in the California Values Act that leaves undocumented immigrants vulnerable to deportation.

It also illustrates a broader issue facing state and local attempts to shield residents from federal immigration authorities.

Jennie Pasquarella, senior staff attorney and director of immigrants’ rights at ACLU of California, said this type of situation has been happening for years.

“You have these task forces formed for criminal investigation purposes, but then you have federal agents standing off to the side asking about immigration status,” she said. “There’s an entrenched culture of creating both formal task forces and informal partnerships. It will take some time to change with the implementation of (the California Values Act).”

Pasquarella said local law enforcement and federal agencies have long shared information in ways that put undocumented immigrants at risk.

She calls lack of clarity on how local law enforcement and federal agencies can share information one of the weak points in the California Values Act.

“It’s a huge and growing concern,” Pasquarella said.

By October, local law enforcement will have to report to the state attorney general all the task forces they participate in with federal law enforcement. They must also report the ways in which they share databases with federal law enforcement. The attorney general’s office will release draft guidelines on database sharing regulations the same month.

Until the guidelines come out, Gore said federal agents will continue to use local law enforcement databases to find and identify people who have interacted with local police.

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