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How California’s Plan to Protect Undocumented Immigrants Will Play Out in San Diego

California’s new law restricting how and when local law enforcement agencies can work with federal immigration officials is now in effect. Here’s how it’ll work in San Diego.

The Vista Detention Facility / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

California offers some of the broadest protections and rights to undocumented immigrants in the country, and the California Values Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, makes those protections even stronger.

Indeed, the law – also known as SB 54, or the sanctuary state law – will have a significant impact, particularly for certain people. It will also eventually shed light on the way local law enforcement interacts with federal agencies, like Border Patrol, the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But particularly in San Diego County, where there are high concentrations of federal law enforcement and numerous joint local and federal operations and task forces intended to tackle border-related crimes, it’s still unclear just how far the new protections extend.

For example, the Escondido Police Department was awarded a $250,000 federal grant in December to hire new officers – and the federal government made clear that cooperation in immigration enforcement was a big driver in who was chosen, reported the Union-Tribune.

Sheriff Bill Gore said all the politics around SB 54 created some internal conflict for him. On one hand, if the 200,000 to 300,000 undocumented immigrants estimated to live within the department’s jurisdiction are scared to come to law enforcement to report crimes or be witnesses, that could create a huge public safety issue.

On the other hand, he said, “There are people who are in the county illegally who do bad things, who smuggle drugs or commit violent crimes, and I don’t want the politics of what is going on to get in the way of public safety.”

Local law enforcement in San Diego County works closely with federal agencies via task forces focused on gangs, terrorism, cross-border crimes like drug smuggling and human trafficking and more. Gore said the collaboration and regionalization of crime-fighting efforts is what keeps crime rates so low in the county.

“But I don’t want my deputies and officers to enforce immigration law,” he said.

It’s not so straightforward to separate the two, though.

“Even as advocates, we know SB 54 is the floor and want to go much further,” said Felicia Gomez, policy director for the California Immigrant Policy Center. “But it does lay out the groundwork to disentangle local law enforcement from federal law enforcement.”

One of the biggest impacts of the law that will be seen at the outset, Gomez said, is that it prohibits local law enforcement from calling federal agencies, like Border Patrol, to provide translation services.

Previously, local law enforcement agencies, like the Sheriff’s department could and would call other agencies if they needed translation services during a stop or in another interaction. That sometimes led to immigration enforcement officials ending up alongside local law enforcement officers in situations with undocumented immigrants present, where they may not have been otherwise.

Gomez said advocates believe this will make a big difference in offering protections to undocumented immigrants who come in contact with local law enforcement.

“That’s a practice we’ve seen happening a lot in San Diego County and in the Inland Empire,” Gomez said. “The translations piece will be big.”

ICE Agents in Jails

The second significant change is that local law enforcement is now barred from providing permanent office space to ICE agents. ICE agents have long been stationed at the San Diego Central Jail, Las Colinas Detention Facility and the Vista Detention Facility.

Still, the impact of the change is hard to predict because while ICE agents can’t have permanent space in jail facilities, they can still have a frequent presence.

“We have common space in our jails, where law enforcement are in and out of there – federal, state and local,” Gore said.

ICE agents are still welcome in that space and in San Diego County, where there are high concentrations of federal law enforcement present who can get to local jails quickly and often, it’s unclear how far the protection of just removing permanent office space will go.

ICE agents can still interview detainees in local jails, as long as those individuals have been told their rights and signed written consent forms, as laid out in the state’s Truth Act, which went into effect in 2016.

Local police have also largely stopped complying with detainer requests – requests from ICE to hold detainees in local jails after they’ve been released so ICE can take them into custody for immigration-related offenses. That’s largely thanks to a 2014 state law, the Trust Act, which barred local agencies from holding people for ICE for more than 48 hours if they were in custody for minor crimes. Federal courts have also ruled the detainer practice unconstitutional since 2014.

Local law enforcement, like the Sheriff’s Department, is still allowed to notify ICE of the release dates of undocumented individuals in custody if they have committed one of 800 crimes listed in SB 54, including most felonies. The new provision would help certain people who end up in local jails for an offense that’s not singled out on the list.

Data provided by the Sheriff’s Department shows ICE officers are increasingly taking custody of individuals as they’re released from county jails – in 2017 ICE detained roughly 30 people a week upon their release from a local facility, up from 20 people a week in 2016.

Gore said the list of crimes covered by the new law still leaves off certain offenses, like misdemeanor driving under the influence or domestic violence offenses, but that the version of the law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown was better than earlier iterations, which offered much broader protections.

“I think we can work with it,” he said.

Local-Federal Partnerships

Local law enforcement, come October, will have to report all the task forces they participate in with federal law enforcement and when operations result in immigration proceedings, they may have to provide even further information on those operations to the state.

Local agencies also must report to the state attorney general the ways in which they’re allowed to share databases with federal law enforcement. The attorney general’s office will release draft guidelines on database sharing regulations in October.

While the law suggests that database access will be limited, it’s still unclear how. Until the guidelines come out, Gore said federal law enforcement officers will continue to use local law enforcement databases to find and identify people who have interacted with local police.

The task force piece of the puzzle is the most difficult to untangle, especially in Southern California, home to coastline and the U.S-Mexico border.

Gore said he doesn’t expect SB 54 to impact operations in which local officers collaborate with federal law enforcement agencies, nor does he expect the Department of Justice’s efforts to defund so-called “sanctuary cities” will impact the funds for such efforts.

The collaboration and success of regionalization efforts in law enforcement in San Diego County are often looked upon as models throughout the country, Gore said.

Advocates, however, fear undocumented immigrants could be swept us as collateral damage as part of such operations.

For example, Gomez said, if task force members are searching an apartment complex for participants in a trafficking operation and happen to come across people who are undocumented, ICE and Border Patrol agents could ask for their immigration status and ultimately detain them, even if they had nothing to do with the crime that brought the task force to the apartment complex in the first place.

It’s already happened in San Diego.

Sheriff’s Department deputies said they stopped a vehicle earlier this year for a cracked windshield while patrolling an area for drug smuggling. The officers were working as part of a joint border crimes task force, Operation Stonegarden.

They searched the car for drugs, but found none and issued no citations or arrests.

But somehow, Border Patrol ended up at the scene. The couple was detained over their immigration status.

Back in August, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman told Voice of San Diego that the Sheriff’s deputies called Border Patrol.

Now Gore says the Sheriff’s Department didn’t call Border Patrol, but that Border Patrol “self-deployed” after the deputies accessed a Border Patrol database to see how often the vehicle had crossed the border.

Pratheepan Gulasekaram, a professor of immigration law at Santa Clara University, said there are carve-outs in the law that impact some of its strength. For example, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is largely exempt from its provisions.

But despite any workarounds or concessions made while the bill was going through the legislative process, it still offers “the most protective policy across the U.S.,” he said.

“If you start from the premise that this is going to immunize and shield immigrants in California,” that is not going to happen,” Gulasekaram said. “There is no type of policy that will provide that sort of shield. This does raise – to the extent available – the most comprehensive protection a noncitizen might have while encountering local law enforcement.”

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