Had one of them not spoken up, Orange County Supervisors on Tuesday would’ve gone silent like most years about OC Sheriff Don Barnes’ cooperation with federal immigration enforcement officials.

A state-required discussion about the local transfer of people from jail to immigration detention had once again been wrapped into county supervisors’ regular policymaking meetings. 

Between an emergency storm declaration and a recess for IT issues, activists at the microphone questioned whether the forum had been taken seriously – and urged county officials to make it a standalone forum, with a new format for public dialogue on a working-class timetable. 

“And, you know, the more we try to not discuss these issues, sometimes it looks like we’re trying to hide something,” said county Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, echoing some of the forum’s 12 public speakers who largely identified as immigrant rights’ advocates. 

His home city is believed to have one of the county’s largest undocumented populations.

And people tracking OC Sheriff transfers are observing a striking trend.

Under Barnes, the department that once led the state in sending local inmates to immigration detention — after inmates had completed their sentences in county jail — now reported a steep drop in transfers last year to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

[Read: Does OC Work with ICE the Most in California? Sheriff Pushes for More Communication with Agency]

Neither Barnes nor other Sheriff officials made comments at the microphone, and supervisors had no questions for them.

“This number has dropped over the years in part because of community organizing, but also because of a change of federal administration and ICE priorities” under U.S. President Joe Biden, said Roberto Herrera, a member of the Orange County Rapid Response Network, which helps families of loved ones detained by ICE with legal resources. 

Under Barnes, a total of 17 people finished their county jail sentences and then went to ICE custody for potential deportation, according to numbers provided by the department for an annual and state-required county discussion about these transfers.

Critics call this inter-agency practice “double punishment,” and they happened this year at a starkly lower number compared to Barnes’ first year in office, during which the department transferred to ICE a total of 492 people (498 by the state’s count) in 2019.

The following year, that number fell to 225. 

It again dropped to 73 in 2021, the same year the county agreed on a $60,000 settlement for a lawsuit alleging Barnes’ staff illegally held a father of three – despite county prosecutors declining to file charges – so he could be transferred to ICE custody in 2019. 

Though the years-long decline in transfers doesn’t reflect a decline in information-sharing.

ICE routinely asks local law enforcement agencies to notify them at least 48 hours before an incarcerated person they’re tracking is released. 

Last year, ICE requested an alert from Barnes regarding 272 jail inmates, according to information from the Sheriff’s Dept. attached to the agenda for the forum. Barnes notified ICE about 155 of them – a slight increase over the previous year, which was 143

“What is the reason for re-incarcerating, giving double punishment to the immigrant community?” asked Laura Hernandez, the program coordinator for OC Rapid Response Network. “I’ve been fighting this for a very long time and yet no one’s been able to give me a clear cut answer. Nothing that makes sense.”

She and other speakers compared that data to smaller transfer numbers out of its neighboring counties with larger populations – San Diego and Los Angeles, the latter of which saw their former sheriff, Alex Villaneuva, pledge a ban on all ICE transfers in 2020.

OC Sheriff officials have insisted on their ability to share information with ICE and transfer inmates despite laws like the “California Values Act” of 2017, a state law that aimed to restrict state and local law enforcement agencies from working on behalf of ICE. 

The TRUTH Act of 2016 required agencies like Barnes’ to provide written consent forms to inmates prior to ICE questioning – and to explain the interview’s purpose and ability to decline. 

It also mandates local legislative bodies to hold public forums with data about their law enforcement agency’s cooperation with federal authorities. 

Such forums come and go in Orange County with little discussion on the part of the elected Board of Supervisors. 

And after 12 public speakers urged officials to engage with the data and comments at these forums, only one county supervisor at the dais spoke up. 

Supervisor Sarmiento recalled the year 2017, when ICE ended its controversial use of the Santa Ana city jail to keep people they’d detained, after council members declared their town a Sanctuary City and decided not to renew their agreement with the agency.

Between 2017 and 2018, numerous cities throughout Orange County made opposite declarations, pushing back in resolutions against the state’s sanctuary law.

[Read: Three More Orange County Cities Oppose State Immigration Sanctuary Law

“It was, at that time, very, very unclear what the future would hold. A lot of people thought it wasn’t a wise decision,” he said from the dais on Tuesday. “We felt it was something that was important because we saw that witnesses, victims of crimes weren’t coming forward. They were concerned about their privacy … their confidentiality being (breached).”

He said ending the Sheriff’s cooperation with ICE would hit away at distrust between poorer communities and the police.

He praised the department as being “very responsive” when contacted by his office, and that it’s “been very collaborative with our office, and we hope going forward, we’re going to continue to have that relationship.”

“I don’t think it’s a good thing for this county to be an outlier county,” he said.

Sarmiento also questioned the format of these state-required forums. 

In Orange County, they happen within supervisors’ board meetings, which discuss all manner of things – proclamations, reports, contracts and policies – as early as 9:30 a.m.

In Tuesday’s public comments, Santa Ana’s first undocumented city commissioner, Carlos Perea, said “forums should be held in the afternoons, not in the morning where working families and immigrant refugee communities cannot attend.” 

He said county supervisors should hold the forums as distinct, special sessions. 

“Most information about the (forums) has come from three sources: The singular notice posted by the county, community advocates, and news articles recounting events after they occur,” said Perea, who now leads a local think tank called the Harbor Institute for Immigrant & Economic Justice. 

“This should not be the only way to inform residents about the hearing.”

Sarmiento called for such forums to be done “outside of the board meeting, and maybe an independently hosted forum where people can come after work, where people can access and ask questions.” 

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.