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A Year Into California’s ‘Sanctuary’ Law, Not All Police Departments’ Policies Reflect Its Changes

The sign in front of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Administration...

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: The sign in front of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Administration Center, San Diego, August 13, 2018.

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A year after the state passed the California Values Act to create a firewall between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement, some local agencies still don’t fully comply with the measure and many still routinely interact with federal immigration officials thanks to joint task forces, and shared databases and workspaces.

Aired: May 9, 2019 | Transcript

A year after the state passed the California Values Act to create a firewall between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement, some local agencies still don’t fully comply with the measure and many still routinely interact with federal immigration officials thanks to joint task forces, and shared databases and workspaces.

The San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a coalition of groups that advocate on behalf of immigrants in the county, reviewed local police departments’ written policies and found that most have updated their policies to reflect SB 54 but that some still have a ways to go.

The California Values Act, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, limits the ways in which local officials and federal immigration officials can work together and set up measures to increase transparency in instances when agencies working together for other reasons – like to tackle drug smuggling or human trafficking – may result in immigration enforcement.

“Our hope is that our agencies here will continue to work with us to continue to get their policies in compliance with SB 54,” said Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, human rights policy adviser for Alliance San Diego and author of the report. “At the end of the day it’s important that the community trusts local law enforcement. The only way they can do that is if they are transparent and fully adhering to laws like SB 54.”

Members of the coalition met with 11 local agencies and obtained policies that had been updated to comply with the California Values Act from nine.

Two agencies, San Diego County Probation and the El Cajon Police Department, have not yet finished updating their policies. The Coronado Police Department refused to share its policy, but provided the group a letter to specify whether it is following certain components of SB 54.

Written policies don’t paint a perfect picture of a department’s compliance with the law, the report notes. A department could excel in community outreach and interactions with immigration communities in practice and still have work to do updating its official documents. Likewise, a department might comply with the law on paper but could still be taking part in practices that violate the law’s intent.

All of the nine agencies that had updated their written policies address certain aspects of SB 54, including that inquiring into an person’s immigration status, detaining people under a hold request from immigration officials and making arrests based on civil immigration warrants are all prohibited.

But there were other points lacking in many policies, the group found.

Only the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and Escondido Police Department included in their policies that using agency resources for immigration enforcement purposes is prohibited, for example.

The Escondido Police Department, which has long had a reputation for collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, actually scored the highest of all local departments for its new written policy and its compliance with SB 54.

“I was always clear, I’ll do what the law says and when the law changes, we’ll change with it too,” said Escondido Police Chief Craig Carter.

He said he’s been meeting every quarter with members of the city’s immigrant community as well as other advocates to make sure the lines of communication stay open. He doesn’t believe SB 54 is an impediment to his officers doing their jobs.

“Anybody who is here illegally and just trying to do better for their family is not what I’m looking for,” he said. “I’m looking for the predator who’s taking advantage of the community — those with criminal backgrounds and charges, they should have the scrutiny of ICE. And I think most people would agree, including those in the immigrant community. As long as I can get those bad actors, if you will, out of the community, I think we all win.”

Escondido’s shifts represent both the promise of SB 54 and how much work still remains when it comes to truly separating local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement, Tsurumoto Grassi said.

Escondido no longer offers ICE agents dedicated office space or uses ICE or Border Patrol agents to help them translate. But the report notes that both the Escondido Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department both shifted to having “shared workspaces.”

“For example, ICE used to have their own dedicated desktop computer and desk in the jails before SB 54. Now they no longer have their own desks and desktop computers — they bring laptop computers and work in a shared space instead,” according to the report.

That means those departments are complying with the letter of the law, but not necessarily its spirit.

Other departments, like the Carlsbad Police Department, updated their policies yet still don’t include many SB 54 requirements, including that using immigration agents as interpreters or providing dedicated office space for immigration authorities is prohibited.

Felicia Gomez, policy coordinator of the California Immigrant Policy Center, said the Carlsbad Police Department did not meet with SDIC and that the group only obtained a copy of the department’s new policies because they were attached to an agenda item when the City Council voted supporting the federal government’s challenge to SB 54.

VOSD was also unable to reach anyone from the Carlsbad Police Department, but a spokeswoman for the city said the department’s policy was analyzed by the city attorney before it was finalized, and found it to be in compliance.

Gomez said she’s also concerned about Carlsbad’s use of automated license plate readers and whether the devices are being used for immigration enforcement, but said it’s been difficult to speak with anyone in the department about it. The San Diego Police Department recently stopped sharing its automated license plate reader data with federal agencies like Border Patrol to comply with SB 54.

“Every single agency in our county continues to partner with ICE and Border Patrol because they are on joint task forces together, and there are shared databases,” Tsurumoto Grassi said. “We have to remember at the end of the day, SB 54 isn’t a ceiling. It’s a foundation that we need to continue to build upon.”

Chula Vista Police Department Capt. Phil Collum said the department worked extensively with groups like Alliance San Diego to craft its policy.

“It’s very important that potential victims in crimes be willing to communicate with law enforcement,” Collum said. “We clarified in our policy that the fact that any individual is suspected of being undocumented should not be the sole basis of any detention or arrest. That is simply not the work we do as law enforcement in this community.”

But Collum also acknowledged that that officers do have contact with, and sometimes work alongside, federal officials. He said the policy states clearly that CVPD personnel may participate in joint task forces with federal law enforcement officials, which includes information-sharing, as long as the task force is primarily not for immigration enforcement.

“Policies are written to provide clarity and guidance in those ways,” he said. “But crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sometimes criminal investigations do cross jurisdictional boundaries, like with forced migration or human trafficking, and we want the people responsible to be held responsible.”

Tsurumoto Grassi praised the Chula Vista Police Department for its work to build trust among the immigrant community, and its willingness to be open to changes.

“They’ve worked for a long time to build community trust, and they’ve done a very good job doing it. But for whatever reason, they may not have certain pieces written down in their policy,” she said. “So our hope is that they’ll go back and add some of those things to the policy. But to their credit, they did meet with us multiple times, and were very open to the feedback that we did provide when we did meet with them.”

Outstanding Concerns

Joint task forces and other forms of collaboration between local law enforcement and federal agencies continue to concern advocates.

Only four agencies, for example, specifically spell out what role they’ll play in reporting statistics related to their task force participation to the state – one of SB 54’s requirements.

The Escondido Police Department, for example, notes in its policy that reporting is required, but doesn’t say what role it will play in reporting. “They also failed to provide any clarity around which other agency on the task force would provide the reports,” according to the report.

“There needs to be clarity on what those task forces do and what happens when there are collateral arrests,” Tsurumoto Grassi said.

A report released by the California attorney general’s office details how difficult it is to gather data about arrests made for immigration enforcement purposes through task forces. It came up with two numbers: that 13,960 arrests were made by joint law enforcement task forces in 2018, and that seven arrests were made for the purpose of immigration enforcement by task force participants that year.

There are also ongoing concerns involving the Sheriff’s Department, Gomez said, which operates the county’s jails.

As a result of SB 54, fewer people are being released to ICE after being held in county jails and the Sheriff’s Department is notifying ICE of individuals in its custody less frequently. But the Sheriff’s Department does post release dates online, meaning ICE officers could figure out when someone will be released as long as they have their name, the report notes.

Immigration advocates are also concerned with whether the Sheriff’s Department is fully complying with the Truth Act, a predecessor to SB 54, that went into effect in 2017 and aimed to bolster jail inmates’ awareness of their rights regarding interactions with federal immigration authorities.

A high percentage of inmates are agreeing to ICE interviews without an attorney present, despite new policies that requiring that those inmates be read their rights before consenting to those interviews.

“It raises a lot of red flags in terms of what is actually happening inside the department and how information is being relayed,” Gomez said.

Jesse Marx and Sara Libby contributed to this report. Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration issues in San Diego County. She can be reached at maya.srikrishnan@voiceofsandiego.org.

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