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Intensely-held beliefs on all sides of the illegal immigration debate were on full display at Tuesday’s Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting, where officials held a state-mandated public forum about the transfer of certain Sheriff’s Department inmates to federal immigration authorities.

The forum, required for the first time this year under California’s TRUTH Act, brought out more than two dozen public speakers who supported and opposed the Sheriff’s Department’s involvement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The five elected county supervisors themselves declined to say anything about the issue or present data prepared for the meeting by sheriff’s officials, prompting pushback from some in the audience.

“We need transparency!” shouted one audience member, when it was clear the supervisors wouldn’t address the public on the issue.

“It was very disappointing to see you not thank them for speaking,” said north OC resident Brian Kaye in public comments later in the meeting to the supervisors, who didn’t respond.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s jail staff cooperate with ICE, by transferring inmates who qualify under state law for release to ICE once they’ve served their time in county jail, and by housing ICE detainees through a contract, according to department spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

“It’s important to note that we do not do street level immigration enforcement,” Braun said in an email Tuesday. “We provide public safety services for all residents of Orange County without concern for their immigration status.”

Undersheriff Don Barnes, who will become the county’s sheriff on Jan. 7, had prepared public remarks for the meeting, as well as a chart showing how many inmates were screened and released to ICE each month in 2017. But the supervisors, led by Chairman Andrew Do, chose not to call him to speak or present the chart at the meeting.

After the forum, Barnes spoke one-on-one with residents and answered questions. He emphasized deputies do not conduct immigration enforcement on the streets of Orange County, and that the department fully complies with the TRUST Act, a state law that prohibits law enforcement from holding inmates past their normal release date unless they were convicted of a specified “serious or violent felony.”

When Laura Kanter, a youth advocate with the Santa Ana-based LGBT Center OC, told Barnes a woman she knows was afraid to visit a family member in jail, the undersheriff said she had nothing to worry about and offered to personally drive the woman to the jail and take her to a visitation.

The public comments at the forum reflected the ongoing national debate over immigration.

People who supported strong immigration enforcement said they were standing up for the rule of law, and that the Sheriff’s Department cooperation with ICE makes communities safer by removing dangerous criminals.

“If we don’t have laws, we don’t have a country,” said Luis Adame. “We cannot take in the entire population of the globe.”

“If [an] illegal alien does not want to risk deportation, then they should read the three sanctuary state bills and refrain from committing the crimes that will get one deported,” said Robert Lauten.

People who opposed local law enforcement cooperation with ICE said the cooperation makes communities less safe by making immigrants and their family members fearful of reporting crime, and that domestic violence victims wrongfully plead guilty to crimes that can get themselves deported.

“By collaborating with ICE you are mixing policing with immigration policy. Studies show that by doing that you are making all of us unsafe: citizens, people with status, and undocumented people. All of us,” said Jack Lerner.

“I’ve seen mothers crying as their children are torn from their arms,” said Asmaa Ahmed, a policy manager with the Anaheim office of the Council on American–Islamic Relations.

Several commenters asked for specific data about several topics, including how many people the Sheriff’s Department transfers from jail to ICE custody.

Barnes had prepared the transfer data in a chart, but the supervisors placed it on page 639 of a larger document known as the “supplemental agenda” and declined to show it during the meeting.

The TRUTH Act states that as part of the public forum, “the local law enforcement agency may provide the governing body with data it maintains regarding the number and demographic characteristics of individuals to whom the agency has provided ICE access, the date ICE access was provided, and whether the ICE access was provided through a hold, transfer, or notification request or through other means.”

When public comments were finished, Do, the supervisors’ chairman who was running the meeting, asked the county’s top lawyer if that information was required to be presented.

County Counsel Page replied that it was optional. “The provision of data is permissive, not mandatory,” he said.

“The board has satisfied the requirements” of the TRUTH Act, Page said.

Barnes’ prepared remarks for the forum, which the supervisors didn’t invite him to give, acknowledged the passions surrounding immigration policy and emphasized the department does not arrest people for immigration violations.

“We strongly agree with those who argue that local law enforcement should not be enforcing immigration law. We have never, do not, and will not arrest individuals for violation of immigration law.  It is not our charge and doing so could hinder our effectiveness in carrying out our core mission,” Barnes wrote in his prepared remarks.

“We will, however, always advocate for the ability to communicate with our federal law enforcement partners on keeping the narrow segment of criminal offenders out of our community. Doing so keeps ALL members of our community safe.”

[Click here to read Barnes’ prepared remarks.]

Asked why Barnes didn’t speak at the forum, Braun, the spokeswoman, said: “Sheriff-elect Barnes was prepared to present and respond to questions.”

“The meeting was run by the Board of Supervisors,” she noted, referring questions about the meeting format to county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson.

Asked why the sheriff didn’t speak, Nichelson didn’t have an answer as of late Tuesday. She referred to the 693-page document that had information about the Sheriff’s Department policies related to ICE starting on page 618. (The document doesn’t show a table of contents listing the page numbers.)

In an interview with Voice of OC after the forum, Barnes said the department follows state law.

“We’re in complete compliance with the Trust Act,” Barnes said. “My concern is, regardless immigration status, protect the public…We don’t ask any [immigration] status questions.”

Barnes said he and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have been working to get out the message with the local Mexican Consulate, Catholic Church and other community groups.

“We’ve got to get off these fringe politics,” Barnes added. “This is not about politics. [It’s] about safety.”

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

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