OC Sheriff Wants to Expand Immigration Detention in County Jails

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens speaks to county supervisors in 2013. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is seeking permission from the Board of Supervisors to expand the number of federal immigration detainees who can be held in county jails.

The move would offset more than half the capacity U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lost when actions by Santa Ana officials prompted the federal agency to cancel its city jail contract.

The expansion “will allow the Sheriff to accommodate a larger ICE bed capacity for detainees when needed,” according to a report by Hutchens’ staff.

If approved by supervisors at their public meeting Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department would be allowed to hold an additional 120 immigration detainees at a time, increasing the maximum capacity for ICE detainees in the county’s jails from 838 to 958.

The Santa Ana City Council voted in December to reduce the ICE bed capacity for the city jail from 200 detainees to 128, before phasing out the ICE contract entirely.

ICE responded in February by canceling its Santa Ana contract. As the City Council tries to fill an $11 million hole in the budget from losing the contract, city officials are now looking at converting part of the mostly-empty jail into a mental health center.

The Sheriff’s Department expansion would bring the county an extra $5 million per year without a need for additional staff “at this time,” according to the sheriff’s staff report.

ICE pays the county $118 per day for each immigration detainee held in county jails, and the expansion would increase county income from the contract from the current $22 million to $27 million, according to the sheriff’s department.

The sheriff’s request comes as President Donald Trump’s administration has stepped up efforts to deport immigrants in the U.S. illegally, particularly those accused of crimes. Trump’s expansion of deportations is expected to require additional space to detain those arrested by ICE.

Hutchens says her deputies do not, and will not, enforce immigration laws in local communities. But she has publicly supported an expanded role for county jails in holding federal immigration detainees, saying fewer criminals would be released into communities.

Among other steps, she has spoken out against a state bill that would limit local law enforcement from helping federal officials enforce immigration laws, saying the sheriff’s department would take a major budget hit from losing the ICE contract.

Hutchens also traveled to Washington in February to meet with the president and top Trump Administration officials, and offered additional help to the administration to hold unauthorized immigrants.

Among the Trump Administration officials Hutchens offered extra assistance in detaining undocumented immigrants is U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has advocated expanded deportations. Hutchens spoke with Sessions directly over the phone, according to the Orange County Register.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice, which Sessions oversees, is investigating whether Hutchens’ department has a pattern of civil rights violations connected to misuse of jailhouse informants and alleged withholding of key records from courts.

The federal investigation of the jailhouse snitch scandal was announced in December before Trump became president, and soon after a state appeals court found Hutchens’ department repeatedly violated detainees’ civil rights through an illegal informants program.

Hutchens went to Washington in her role as president of the Major County Sheriffs of America, an association of elected sheriffs who collectively serve over 100 million people.

Just before her trip, Hutchens’ staff confirmed they had dropped their request for nearly $130,000 in compensation from Trump’s campaign for law enforcement services at a rally he held in Costa Mesa last April.

During her trip, President Trump gave a speech on Feb. 8 in which he thanked Hutchens for her leadership, said she’s “had great service,” and called her “legendary.”

At the end of February, Sessions announced his department will “pull back” from civil rights investigations into local law enforcement, saying such efforts have made communities less safe. It’s unknown if that decision will affect the investigation of the Sheriff’s Department and OC District Attorney’s Office.

But in March, after U.S. U.S. Attorney General Eileen Decker and 45 other U.S. attorneys were asked to resign by Trump, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Central District of California office in Los Angeles said it would not affect the investigation.

“The investigation is continuing,” said spokesman Thom Mrozek in a brief email statement. “The departure of the U.S. Attorney will not affect the investigation.”

The Board of Supervisors meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the county Hall of Administration in Santa Ana, with public comments heard at the beginning.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.