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How much should local police cooperate with federal immigration authorities?

Sheriff Don Barnes says he doesn’t send his deputies into communities to do immigration enforcement themselves. But he defends his department’s practice of facilitating a handoff of inmates with immigration holds to federal authorities.

Roberto Herrera, a local resident who works with Resilience OC, says that kind of handoff also creates a ripple effect throughout local communities that oftentimes destabilizes families.

“Where the law allows, we do cooperate with ICE in the [jail] custody setting to address shared threats and prevent those who have committed violent crimes – as designated within [state] law – from entering our neighborhoods,” Barnes said Tuesday.

But for other residents, there are major problems with where these people are sent.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has been complicit in putting community members in danger, by placing them in cages in immigration detention centers to contract Covid-19,” said Ana Ramirez, one of several public speakers at the forum who criticized the transfers.

This debate happens every year in Orange County since 2018, under a state law called the TRUTH Act, which requires a public discussion of cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

The first year supervisors were required to hold the hearing, they didn’t say anything. This year, Barnes engaged publicly, while the supervisors again said nothing about the issue one way or the other.

During the public hearing, immigration activists pointed to state data they said showed the Orange County Sheriff’s Department transferred more inmates to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement than any other California county in 2019.

The Orange County Response Network protest outside the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8, 2020.

Ramirez and other activists pointed to a coronavirus outbreak in recent months at the nearest large ICE detention center in Adelanto, where at least 147 detainees have tested positive.

Barnes “continues to transfer people even during the pandemic,” said Herrera, who called Barnes “deporter in chief” at the hearing. 

Barnes defends these transfers as lawful and important for public safety.

In 2019, the Sheriff’s Department transferred 492 inmates to ICE custody whose criminal convictions met the required threshold under state law, he added.

State law prohibited the department from telling ICE about another 1,015 inmates whom ICE had issued “detainers” for alleged immigration violations, according to the sheriff.

“Unfortunately, of the 1,015 inmates with ICE detainers who were released back into the community, 238 were re-arrested in 2019 in Orange County and returned to Orange County jail for crimes including assault and battery, rape, robbery and other serious offenses,” he added.

Barnes has 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.”

“We do not perform immigration activities within the public as part of our law enforcement duties when serving the public in a law enforcement capacity,” Barnes said Tuesday.

“In carrying out our duties, we do not ask for the immigration status of suspects, witnesses or those who call to report crimes.”

Activists called for a moratorium stopping the transfer of Orange County inmates to ICE, which did not receive a response from officials.

“ICE has failed miserably and has allowed the virus to spread to community members currently detained,” said Anaheim resident Pat Davis, through written comments read aloud at the forum.

Going forward, Barnes said he will keep advocating for lawmakers to remove barriers blocking law enforcement agencies from communicating with each other.

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

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