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Government & Politics

Fresno County Sheriff: Allowing ICE Agents In The Jail Could Be A Model For The Nation

Margret Mims

The fate of undocumented immigrants is the subject of intense conversation nationally. Deporting millions of people is at the heart of president-elect Donald Trump’s immigration policy. Mr. Trump now says he wants to start by focusing on undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.  But how to go about finding them? One prominent local leader thinks she has the answer and is already putting it to work.

When you are arrested and booked into the Fresno County Jail a couple of things happen.

Your name and the crime you are suspected of committing is recorded, you have your mugshot taken, your fingers are pressed into ink to record your fingerprints, and an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent might check your legal status.

For nearly the last two years, ICE agents have been stationed inside the county jail. It’s not unheard of, but it is an uncommon arrangement in pursuit of undocumented immigrants the federal government would like to deport.

And now, Fresno County Sheriff Margret Mims says it could be the model for the rest of the country.

“What we are doing mirrors what he is now saying he wants to do. Focus on the criminal element when it comes to people who are here illegally. And that is exactly what we are doing,” Mims says.

Mims says more than 300 people have been deported since the program began. All of them have been convicted of a felony or multiple misdemeanors.

A big reason for that, she says, is that by having the agents on hand they can communicate more smoothly with the federal agency because the booking process at the jail usually only last a couple hours before the person is released again.

"What we are doing mirrors what he is now saying he wants to do,"

“And remember the benefit of that really keeps ICE from having to go out into the community to look for these people who have committed crimes. If they come to the jail where we already have them, than that really reduces the community fear about seeing ICE agents in the neighborhoods,” Mims says.

According to immigration experts, when ICE agents do raids about half the undocumented people they find have a criminal conviction in their background.

Mims stresses that the only people deported in the Fresno jail program are those who have been convicted of crimes, though ICE also has permission to interview people who are accused or suspected of committing crimes.

In a written statement, an ICE spokesman said they support working collaboratively with local law enforcement and that this partnership helps deport high-priority undocumented immigrants. Quote:

“ICE is committed to focusing on smart, effective immigration enforcement and makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a risk to national security”

The program has been the target of much frustration from immigration activists who see it as a dangerous and destructive overreach of the Sheriff’s authority that does sow distrust in the Hispanic community.

"The model that we have in Fresno County is one that should completely be eliminated," Angelica Salceda

“The model that we have in Fresno County is one that should completely be eliminated,” says Angelica Salceda with the California ACLU. She says despite assurances from the Sheriff, she does not trust that immigrants are being fully informed of their rights.

She believes some are being deported following minor arrests because they may have an old conviction on their record.

“[They] perhaps had a conviction ten years ago, have already cleaned up their lives. And maybe [have] been charged with something, not convicted, and yet that charge from ten years ago that they have already paid a price for, will result in them being stripped away from their families,” says Salceda.

Starting next year, a new California law will require that every inmate be fully informed of their legal rights, including the right to an attorney or remain silent, although the Sheriff says that is a standard they are already following.

But could this actually be taken nationwide?

"It would be a very expensive commitment of staffing for an agency that has lots of enforcement responsibilities," Louis DeSipio

There are significant hurdles that would complicate the matter says UC Irvine political science professor Louis DeSipio.

First and foremost, taking agents out of the field would be costly.

“It would be a very expensive commitment of staffing for an agency that has lots of enforcement responsibilities. Not just checking people who are detained for one reason or another. But also going out and finding people who have outstanding deportation orders against them,” DeSipio says.

DeSipio says this would not be the first time the federal government tried a nationwide immigration screening program. But the first attempt, an electronic registry that departments were supposed to check, was cumbersome, inefficient, and was recently scrapped. DeSipio says it’s true that having agents in the jail would speed this process up. But it less clear if it’s worth it.

Additionally, such an effort could run afoul of the US constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment under the law.

“Real issue that is always raised with these programs is that you have to apply the same standard to everybody to make sure that you are not unintentionally discriminating against someone because they happen to look Hispanic, for example,” DeSipio says.

DeSipio says the prioritization approach to enforcement currently in effect was used by both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama after high-profile immigration raids around the turn of the century caused massive backlash from the business community.

As a result, Obama has deported more people than any other president, roughly 2,500,000 through 2015. Numbers for 2016 are not yet out but are sure to push the total even higher.

Mims thinks copying Fresno County’s program nationally could find even more undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes nationwide.

However, even her own program could be in jeopardy.

In reaction to president-elect Donald Trump’s immigration proposals, California’s legislative Democrats have introduced a bill for the upcoming session that would prohibit exactly what Sheriff Mims is doing, calling the bill ‘Freeze Out ICE’.