LA's Sheriff Wants To Kick ICE Out Of The Jails. What That Really Means

File: L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy class 433 at East Los Angeles College, Friday, January 4, 2019. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

While President Trump has shut down the federal government over his demand for a border wall, in Los Angeles the big immigration question is what to do with unauthorized immigrants in the nation's largest local jail system.

Trump wants them all turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But there's a new sheriff in town who is not only resisting but fighting back.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva ousted incumbent Jim McDonnell in November in part because he promised voters he'd kick ICE out of the jails and hand over fewer inmates for deportation.

That's proving to be a complicated promise to keep — and it's unclear how many fewer people might actually be deported under Villanueva than his predecessor.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO KICK ICE OUT OF THE JAILS?

For years, ICE agents have been allowed to use space inside Twin Towers downtown, where all inmates are processed in and out of L.A. County jail. Using the sheriff's public website, they figure out when a suspected unauthorized immigrant is being released and request deputies to transfer the person to ICE.

So inmates would be released from sheriff's custody, but inside a room where federal agents would immediately detain them.

When Villanueva says he's going to kick ICE out of the jails, he doesn't mean he's going to stop turning people over. It means he's going to force ICE agents to work outside the jail facilities.

"So the bad guys are still going to get transferred," the sheriff told LAist. "It's just the physical presence of ICE in the jails that we are altering."

But that's tricky. Where will the transfers occur? Will sheriff's deputies escort inmates to some other location? And if they already have been released from custody after serving their time, detaining them further by taking them to ICE could be a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

ICE did not respond to requests for comment on Villanueva's plan. But the man who once oversaw ICE's criminal investigations in Los Angeles said suspected unauthorized immigrants who commit crimes are a high priority for the agency and L.A. County jail is a prime place to find them.

Immigration agents "could set up shop right outside the door and try to talk to people as they come out of the jail," said Claude Arnold, who was special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations unit in the region for five years until 2015.

"They could cordon off part of the street and park a detention bus there," he said, adding, "think of the chaos that could cause."

Sheriff's officials have been tight-lipped about how they plan to conduct future transfers.

"We are looking at a number of options," said Commander Elier Morejon, the sheriff's point person on developing the new policy.

Kicking ICE agents out of the jails would also mean that they no longer have the opportunity to interview individuals they suspect of being in the U.S. illegally. They can request such interviews now, although the person they want to talk to can refuse.

A WAY TO REDUCE THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE HANDED OVER TO ICE

Under SB 54, the so-called sanctuary state law that took effect a year ago, California sheriffs are prohibited from handing over to ICE jail inmates who've been convicted of any of 800-plus less serious misdemeanors - like traffic offenses and trespassing.

Villanueva's opportunity to reduce the number of people he turns over is related to a second list of about 160 crimes.

Under the law, sheriffs can decide for themselves whether to turn someone over if they were convicted of a felony on that second list more than 15 years ago, or if they were convicted of a listed misdemeanor within the past 5 years.

A number of the crimes on that list are "wobblers," offenses that prosecutors can treat as a felony or a misdemeanor.

Villanueva told LAist earlier this month that he's inclined to stop handing over people with misdemeanor convictions for most wobblers. Morejon added the sheriff hasn't made a final decision, but he's considering making it a matter of policy that he won't turn over individuals with a misdemeanor conviction for any of the wobblers on the list.

Morejon said such a policy shift would reduce the number of people turned over to ICE by "a little bit," adding, "not [by] very many."

Here are some examples of wobblers on the list:

  • A first-time DUI is usually a misdemeanor but prosecutors can charge you with a felony if someone is seriously injured in a resulting accident.
  • A first-time domestic violence case can be filed as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the seriousness of the injury to your partner.
  • Resisting arrest can be filed (charged) by prosecutors as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the injury caused to the police officer or sheriff's deputy.
Activists with the American Freedom Alliance, an anti-illegal immigration group, showed up at this week's Sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission meeting to protest Sheriff Alex Villanueva's plans to kick ICE agents out of county jails and hand over fewer suspected unauthorized immigrants for deportation. (Frank Stoltze/LAist)

HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES THE SHERIFF TYPICALLY HAND OVER TO ICE?

The most recent statistics available are from 2017. That year, the sheriff's department handed over 1,223 unauthorized immigrants to ICE for deportation, transferring them inside the jails or in some cases at courthouses.

That was only about one-fourth of the nearly 5,000 people ICE asked for.

Former Sheriff McDonnell said more than half of the people ICE requested were out of bounds because they committed relatively minor crimes and were thus protected by the sanctuary state law.

Another 1,500 or so were not handed over mostly because they had warrants for their arrest elsewhere or they were going to community programs to finish their sentence, said Morejon.

In some cases, ICE never came to pick up the immigrants, he said.

"What they've told us is they don't have room in their facilities," said Morejon. "They don't have the personnel to pick them up."

"THE STAKES ARE EXTREMELY HIGH"

Immigrant rights activists have their own estimates of how many fewer people would be deported as a result of Villanueva's possible policy change. There is general agreement, however, that the sheriff would still be handing over at least several hundred people a year.

"The stakes are extremely high," said Chris Newman, general counsel for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

"These are people who have served their time for their crimes and are punished again by being deported," Newman told LAist. "The sheriff essentially is picking winners and losers when he decides which people he'll hand over to ICE."

The issue is "extremely complex," said Newman, especially given how Proposition 47 reduced a range of drug offenses to misdemeanors and Proposition 64 legalized marijuana.

Newman and other activists have been lobbying Villanueva to stop handing people to ICE altogether and to end virtually all cooperation with what they call a "rogue" agency with a poor record of treating immigrants.

"The people of Los Angeles issued a broad mandate to Sheriff Villanueva when they elected him in an historic election — and that mandate was to stop working with ICE," said David Abud of the Day Laborer Network.

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission is also getting into the debate. The panel is expected to consider a motion next month calling on the sheriff not to turn anyone over to ICE without a warrant.

"WE CAN FORCE YOU OUT WITH A RECALL"

At the commission's meeting this week, Villanueva faced threats from people angered by his push to limit cooperation with ICE.

"Either you change your attitude toward illegal immigration or face recall by we the people," Raul Rodriguez Jr. of American Freedom Alliance told the sheriff.

But it's not just the relatively few staunchly anti-illegal immigration activists warning Villanueva.

"While we are focused on the individuals in the jails, I'm also focused on the victims and victims' rights," Supervisor Kathryn Barger told the sheriff last month. "And so I think we need to move cautiously as it relates to that."

The sheriff also faces pressure from members of law enforcement, many of whom see ICE agents as their brethren in protecting people. That's especially true in the wake of the fatal shooting of Newman Police Officer Ronil Singh in Stanislaus County by an unauthorized immigrant in December.

"We have some new concerns because of the Newman police officer case," Villanueva told LAist.

There are crosscurrents in law enforcement, too. There are a lot of Latino officers who have deep connections to immigrants, including those in the U.S. illegally.

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