Recently the Orange County Board of Supervisors held the annual public hearing on law enforcement’s interaction with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE).  This hearing is required by California law.  In addition to providing law enforcement the opportunity to report on activity from the past calendar year, the hearing is also an opportunity for the public to provide comment and give input on this interaction.  

Unfortunately, some of the public comments contained misinformation. Notably, commenters alleged that the Sheriff’s Department illegally transfers inmates to ICE and deports Orange County community members.  This inaccurate political rhetoric does great damage to the trust between law enforcement and the community we serve.  

As I have stated repeatedly, enforcing immigration law is a federal government responsibility.  As we patrol our communities, Orange County Sheriff’s deputies are focused on criminal violations of state and local law.  We enforce these laws equally, without bias, and without regard for one’s immigration status.  We do not ask the immigration status of suspects, witnesses, or those who call to report crimes.  The Sheriff’s Department will provide for your safety and respond to your call for service without concern for your immigration status.

However, it is important to work with ICE in a custody setting to ensure individuals who pose a risk to our community are safely transferred to ICE custody.  We provide notification to ICE when specific offenders, who have an immigration hold and meet requirements set by state law, are going to be released.  This practice is in keeping with my responsibility to keep Orange County residents safe.  

Contrary to what has been alleged by some of the speakers at the hearing, this communication and transfer process is indeed permissible by state law.  While 2017’s Senate Bill 54 limited this interaction with ICE, it specifically allows local law enforcement the discretion to notify and transfer certain serious and serial offenders to ICE.  This provision of the law is recognition by the State Legislature that some cooperation must exist in order to keep the public safe.   

In calendar year 2021, 199 inmates released from the Orange County Jail had ICE detainers, meaning ICE requested that we notify them when the inmates were being released and transfer the inmates to ICE’s custody.   My department notified ICE of 143 inmates whose criminal convictions met the state law’s requirement for transfer to ICE’s custody.   State law prohibited OCSD from notifying ICE of the release of 56 inmates who had ICE detainers. 

One speaker said that my department has an inordinately large amount of transfer notifications to ICE, pointing to data from 2020 that shows the Orange County Sheriff’s Department transferred the most people to ICE in that calendar year.  Orange County is one of the state’s most populous and we have the largest jail system of those counties that continue to do ICE transfers.  To put our number of transfers in perspective, we had approximately 38,000 bookings at the Orange County Jail in 2020.  The 143 individuals we notified ICE about account for only 0.37% of that number.  

For critics to allege that my narrow focus on the criminal offender population somehow equates to mass deportation of immigrant community members is a disservice to the truth.  I cannot think of one community that would want serious criminal offenders to be returned back to their neighborhood with the potential to reoffend.

Of the 143 individuals we legally notified ICE about, they only took 73 into custody. Of the 143 individuals we legally notified ICE about, they only took 73 into custody. Unfortunately, the 70 individuals ICE took no action on were released back into the community.  These individuals committed crimes like robbery, assault & battery, drug trafficking, and possession of child pornography.  A total of 24 of these individuals were re-arrested for new crimes in Orange County after their release.  This number does not include those who may have been re-arrested outside of our jurisdiction.

The Orange County community has a rich cultural history. Our immigrant community and their many contributions are part of this reason this county is one of the most desirable places to live in California.  My policy communicating with ICE on criminal offenders is intended to keep all residents of the community safe.

Don Barnes is the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner. 

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