Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes transferred 225 people from his jails to federal immigration authorities for deportation last year, according to a report his department made public this month. 

It’s a decline from the 492 transfers to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities in 2019, according to the Sheriff data.

Data compiled by the state for that same year says it was actually 498 people transferred to ICE — the most out of any county or local law enforcement agency in California in 2019. More recent statewide data has yet to be released.

Immigrants’ rights advocates, like Santa Ana resident and activist Roberto Herrera, decried the county’s cooperation with ICE at a county Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 23.

“Although there’s been a reduction in transfers, there have been consistent transfers to ICE amidst a pandemic and outbreaks of Covid-19 in immigration detention centers,” said Herrera, who is part of the local activist group Resilience OC.

Sheriff officials, meanwhile, took the opposite tone — calling for even more cooperation with ICE in front of county supervisors that day.

“Sheriff Barnes continues to urge state and federal lawmakers to adopt policies that allow for open communication amongst law enforcement agencies, as this we feel is very important in keeping our community safe,” said Undersheriff Jeff Hallock, speaking for Barnes at the meeting. 

The supervisors had little to say during the meeting’s public forum on the data, which is required by law under the state’s TRUTH Act.

The forum itself was the subject of criticism, with Herrera and others saying its timing toward the beginning of the calendar year — two months after the last forum in December — didn’t allow for adequate public engagement.

Herrera called the county’s forum a “sham” in terms of its commitment to public engagement.

“This is a real shame you all tried to sneak in this TRUTH Act forum without having to get real community input,” Herrera said. “Usually we show up with community members … this year was very much different as it was very much the intention for this board to exclude public comment for this very important item.”

“However did you manage to pull together another TRUTH Act forum when you were so slow in conducting one for last year? Suspicious at the very least,” wrote Pat Davis of Anaheim in a comment read aloud by the county’s top attorney, Leon Page at the meeting.

Hallock said the pandemic delayed the last forum.

“Last year we were put off by some of the challenges with Covid-19, which pushed the calendar 2019 hearing to the end of 2020. Sheriff Barnes intends to do these at the beginning of every calendar year, I believe the law … allows us to notice for 30 days, which we did in this case.”

ICE issued 393 detainers — immigration hold requests on people who are scheduled to be released from jail — for people in Orange County’s jails last year, Hallock said. 

“Unfortunately, 168 of those detainees, we were not allowed to notify ICE and they were allowed to be released back into the community and 36 of those were rearrested on new charges,” Hallock said.

Felicity Figueroa of Fullerton, in a written comment to the board, criticized the department for pointing out the 36 people who were rearrested: “You fail to tell us these individuals were actually convicted of any crime …”

Many of Barnes’ critics said the transfers are illegal — that state-enacted protections for undocumented immigrants and restrictions on local law enforcement agencies’ communications with ICE, through laws like Senate Bill 54, are supposed to prevent such cooperation. 

“What that bill did do was give a certain amount of discretion to the Sheriff, which in this case the Sheriff has decided to exercise that discretion,” Hallock said at the forum. “The provision of the law really was a recognition by the Legislature that cooperation between the sheriff and ICE was important just to keep the public safe.”

Hallock said the OC Sheriff’s Department “continues to work with ICE inside of a custody setting, as we believe that we have some shared threats with ICE” — specifically, “in transfers of those inmates in our custody who have committed serious or violent law violations.”

Hallock prefaced his remarks that day by saying the department “does not engage in any immigration enforcement.” 

“Never do we ask immigration status of suspects, witnesses or anybody who calls the Sheriff’s deptartment for service. Deputies respond to calls every day with zero regard to somebody’s immigration status,” he continued. 

Figueroa called it “a waste of our local and state tax dollars” when “city police departments and county sheriff deputies are doing the federal government’s work. And it also erodes trust within local communities.”

Davis wrote that Barnes is breaking state law. 

“However you package it, Sheriff Barnes continues to cooperate with ICE illegally.”

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