OC Supervisors Expand Immigration Detention in County Jails

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

From left: Orange County supervisors Michelle Steel, Lisa Bartlett and Shawn Nelson during a discussion of the county's ICE contract at a May 2017 meeting.

Orange County supervisors, during a highly emotional meeting Tuesday, voted to expand the county’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), allowing Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to hold an additional 120 federal immigration detainees at a time in county jails.

The unanimous decision came after more than three dozen public commenters spoke against the expansion and none supported it. Members of the audience responded to the decision by shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the five supervisors, and supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel ordered security officers to clear the meeting room.

Reporters and a news photographer attempting to document the removal of activists were also ordered to leave and threatened with arrest, before an official eventually intervened to allow the journalists to stay, a change from the county’s previous approach to news coverage of incidents inside the meeting room.

In requesting the ICE contract expansion, Hutchens said it would bring an additional $5 million in revenue to the county without requiring more staff.

“In my opinion, it is far more humane to keep people from this area here” than in far-away detention centers in Adelanto or Bakersfield, said Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who joined the unanimous vote for the expansion.

But dozens of residents who addressed supervisors adamantly disagreed with Nelson’s argument.

During nearly two hours of public comments before the supervisors voted, 37 speakers urged them to not expand the ICE contract, and nearly all called for ending immigrant detention in county jails altogether. No public speakers supported expanding the contract, or keeping it in place.

“Shame on us for seeking financial gain by putting innocent women and men behind bars,” said the Rev. Kent Doss, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Mission Viejo.

“Surely we all must know that seeing human beings as commodities to make money out of their incarceration is wrong, and we will be judged.”

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

About 45 people stand up during the supervisors’ meeting to show their opposition to expanding immigration detention at county jails.

Among other things, speakers said the expansion would make it easier for ICE to split parents who don’t have a criminal record from their U.S.-citizen children. An undocumented Garden Grove father, who has lived in the U.S. since 1998 with no criminal record, was detained by ICE on Monday, according to the Orange County Register.

Speakers also said the Sheriff’s Department’s cooperation with ICE will make crime victims even more fearful of talking to local law enforcement for fear they or their families would be deported.

“People aren’t gonna have faith in the police anymore. Crimes are not going to be [reported]. Victims of domestic abuse are not gonna want to come forward,” said Irvine resident Felicity Figueroa.

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Olga Reynolds of Costa Mesa holds up a sign pleading with supervisors to “Please Listen” to the overwhelming sentiment of public comments against expanding the ICE contract.

The commenters also pointed to a March audit report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, which found ICE detainees at the county’s Theo Lacy jail were served rotten lunch meat, forced to use moldy showers, and separated into solitary confinement in violation of ICE standards.

Among the groups advocating against the ICE expansion were the faith-based Orange County Congregation Community Organization and Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice, as well as the LGBT Center OC, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Supervisor Andrew Do listens as Minerva Gomez of La Habra, an immigrant rights organizer, pleads with the board to reject the proposed expansion of ICE detainees in the county’s jails.

When it came time for supervisors to discuss the proposal and vote, Nelson was the only supervisor who commented.

“Obviously the overall topic is extremely sensitive, and it’s extremely emotional for a lot of people. We get that,” Nelson said.

But, he said, the county has no say in ICE’s decisions to arrest people.

“These people are already detained,” said Nelson, who disputed the notion that expanding the contract will make it easier for ICE to detain more people.

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Nelson speaks about the ICE contract expansion at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.

“If we did not agree to allow already-detained people to remain here in Orange County, these very same people would be moved” to either Adelanto, in the desert north of Victorville, or somewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said. Nelson’s comments at one point elicited loud groans from audience members.

Hutchens also responded to the concerns about jail conditions, saying of the inspector general’s audit: “We have addressed all of their concerns.”

“The [audit’s] statement about the food was incorrect,” she added. “The food was fine, but we did make some changes that they requested. And it’s all been dealt with.”

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Hutchens answers questions from supervisors before their vote to expand immigrant detention in the county’s jails.

Hutchens’ proposal increases the maximum capacity for ICE detainees in the county’s jails from 838 to 958. There were 761 immigration detainees in county jails as of Tuesday, according to the sheriff’s spokesman, Lt. Lane Lagaret.

All five supervisors – Nelson, Andrew Do, Steel, Lisa Bartlett, and Todd Spitzer – voted to approve the expansion.

When the item passed, dozens of audience members became furious. They started shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at supervisors, their voices rising in intensity each time they chanted.

Steel tried moving on to a different agenda item, but was met with pushback from audience members who shouted at her. She then declared a recess and ordered the room cleared by sheriff’s officers.

Almost all of the audience members left the room, but Venezuelan immigrant Maria Ruiz-Merroth, overcome with emotion, sat crying in the front row for several minutes. She was comforted by another woman who had spoken at the meeting, and neither left their seats as officers told them to go.

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Maria Merroth of Irvine, an immigrant from Venezuela and a U.S. citizen for the past 36 years, sobs uncontrollably, clutching a Venezuelan flag, after the supervisors voted to expand immigration detention in county jails. (Photo by: Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC)

Sheriff’s special officers, who provide security at the meetings, also ordered Voice of OC and Orange County Register reporters, who remained in the room to witness the activists’ removal, to leave.

“I really don’t want to take you guys to jail,” said one of the officers.

As a Voice of OC reporter asserted a right to document their actions, the officers continued to insist the reporters leave.

It was the second incident in a month in which a reporter was threatened with arrest for attempting to remain in the board room to film the removal of activists.

Eventually, county spokeswoman Carrie Braun intervened Tuesday to say credentialed media would be allowed to stay in the back of the room, and the reporters were allowed to witness what happened. That was a change in the county’s approach, which previously required news reporters to leave or face possible arrest, meaning they couldn’t document how officers handled activists who remained.

In an effort to get the two activists to leave, Deputy Sheriff Kevin Taylor, who is in charge of security at the supervisors’ meetings, approached them with a friendly, gentle tone of voice. He was successful in getting them to exit the room voluntarily.

After the room cleared out, Hutchens disputed that the expansion of ICE detention would make crime victims more fearful of police, saying her deputies do not enforce immigration law.

Activists disagreed, and said they would continue to pressure officials to end ICE detention in local jails.

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