Orange County supervisors this week continued their tradition of staying silent during a state mandated community forum about the county’s transfers of inmates to federal immigration authorities – a rating where OC is a stand out, ranking first statewide per the latest data.

Just over a dozen public commenters at Tuesday’s TRUTH Act forum criticized Sheriff Don Barnes for the ICE transfers – and county supervisors for not asking any questions.

“The Orange County Board of Supervisors have failed the immigrant community and allowed Don Barnes to transfer the most amount of people over to ICE in 2019, 2020 and 2021,” said Victor Valladares of the youth activist group Resilience Orange County.

Sheriff Barnes disputed accusations that his cooperation with ICE was illegal or improper, saying he’s following state law that allows sheriffs to give immigratnion authorities a heads up about the release of inmates who meet specific criteria.

“Some of the commenters, I think, have an agenda. They are misrepresenting some of the facts regarding what the TRUST Act is,” Barnes said at Tuesday’s forum in response to the comments.

“I’m complying with the law.”

Speakers took supervisors to task not only for failing to ask about the human costs inflicted on local families connected to relatives who are deported, but for failing to consider the taxpayer liability they say happens when deputies make mistakes.

In recent months the county agreed to a $60,000 taxpayer payout to settle a lawsuit alleging Barnes’ staff illegally kept holding a father of three – despite the DA declining to file charges – so he could be transferred to ICE custody in 2019.

“I and other taxpayers will pay for Sheriff Barnes as he consistently and persistently violates the law and pay for damages to the victims of his violations,” resident Lubna Hammad said in remote public comments that were read aloud at Tuesday’s forum.

“In the meantime, you as members of the Board of Supervisors have done nothing whatsoever to hold Sheriff Don Barnes accountable.”

Barnes wouldn’t speak to the settlement with Kelvin Hernandez Roman, his spokeswoman told Voice of OC on Tuesday.

County supervisors, who are elected to provide a civilian check and balance on the Sheriff’s Department’s legal defense and spending, had no questions or comment about the sheriff’s handling of immigration transfers.

“Are there any questions any board member would have for the sheriff?” Supervisor Doug Chaffee asked his colleagues.

“There are none,” he noted.

The lack of public engagement was predicted earlier in the forum by Roberto Herrera, who has attended all four of the state-mandated TRUTH Act forums in OC.

“Every year, the TRUTH Act forum has been a sham,” said Herrera, also with Resilience OC, in his earlier public comments.

“I hardly expect that any of you will have public engagement with the Sheriff’s Department, or even to address some of our concerns.”

When it comes to notifying ICE when they can pick up undocumented inmates, nobody in California does it as much as Orange County, according to the latest available data.

Mandatory data reported to the state Attorney General shows OC transferred 219 inmates to ICE in 2020

That’s more than twice as many as the No. 2 county, San Diego, which has a slightly larger population than OC.

OC transferred four times as many inmates to ICE as Los Angeles County’s conservative Sheriff Alex Villanueva – whose jails cover a county with three times as many residents as OC.

The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t publish data on which charges people were being held in jail for before they were transferred to ICE.

After the December 2020 forum, Voice of OC requested that data and it took nearly two months for the department to send it.

The data show a range of charges that got people transferred to ICE from OC jails, including driving with a suspended license, trespassing, personal possession of meth, burglary, trespassing, DUI, probation violation, possession or sale of counterfeit goods and grand theft.

[Click here to see the list of charges people were booked for in 2019 when the Sheriff’s Department notified ICE about their pending release.]

Speakers at Tuesday’s forum also took note of OC sheriff data showing ICE did not pick up half of the 143 inmates made available to them last year.

That demonstrates “once again the blatant overreach of this county department,” said Irvine resident Felicity Figueroa in remote comments read aloud at the meeting.

Barnes didn’t respond to that in his remarks, but emphasized again the law allows him to notify ICE about certain upcoming releases of inmates.

It’s a point he’s made year after year, going back to the first community forum in 2018.

“We’re in complete compliance with the TRUST Act,” Barnes told Voice of OC in an interview at the time.

“My concern is, regardless immigration status, protect the public…We don’t ask any [immigration] status questions.”

The county forum was required under the TRUTH Act, which mandates counties hold annual community forums about ICE transfers if their jails transfer inmates to the federal agency.

The law, approved by the state Legislature in 2016, was intended to require “a transparent process, including community engagement” about how local law enforcement engages with immigration authorities, and ensure “local communities have a voice,” according to its author, then-Assemblyman and current Attorney General Rob Bonta.

This year, with three seats on the supervisors dais up election in the June primary, there are indications that the silence on the dais could soon be a thing of the past.

Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente, a longtime Santa Ana resident, spoke out against the ICE transfers saying he and too many of his neighbors have family members who have been impacted by such policies and sent back to Mexico.

Vicente, a Democrat who’s also running to represent a state Assembly district centered on Anaheim and Santa Ana, says community members like him are going to start a real conversation this year. 

“Young people are engaged in this election,” Vicente told supervisors, noting three of their seats are up for election.

“We’re going to come out, we’re gonna vote.”

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

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