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Central Valley sheriff’s departments transferred more than 1,000 people from local jails to ICE, ACLU report says

Fresno County Jail (file photo)

Central Valley sheriff’s departments are colluding with federal immigration officials, according to a new report released Wednesday from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California.

The author of the report, Maria Romani, says sheriffs departments are collaborating with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement using “shadow systems.” The Tulare, Madera, Merced and Kings County Sheriff’s Departments are using this system, according to emails from ICE agents to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department in 2018.

“The sheriff processes somebody who's in their custody and will release that person into a non-public area of the jail where the person cannot actually leave the jail,” says Romani, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California’s immigrants’ rights program. “But ICE can access that area of the jail.”

Local law enforcement agencies said they release people in accordance with state laws.

Romani says this system has allowed sheriff’s departments in the Central Valley to under-report transfers to ICE, a violation of the Values Act. The 2018 law requires California law enforcement agencies to report to the Attorney General's Office the number of times it transferred people into ICE custody. The AG’s office publishes data from those reports each year.

The report shows there have been at least 1,001 people in the Central Valley whose transfer to ICE custody was facilitated by sheriffs in the Central Valley. That’s three times more than the 357 transfers reported by the Attorney General, according to the report.

More than a quarter of ICE arrests that occurred in the Central Valley from October 2014 to May 2018 took place in local jails, the report finds.

“In their minds [sheriffs] think that they are releasing this person and that this person is no longer in their custody, and because of that they're not actually transferring this person into ICE custody,” she says. “But in fact, you know, these people cannot actually leave that area of the jail, so they're not actually released.”

She says this practice is also a breach of the California TRUST Act, enacted in 2014, which prohibits a law enforcement official from detaining an individual on the basis of an ICE hold after that individual becomes eligible for release.

David Robinson with the Kings County Sheriff’s Department says the department does collaborate with ICE within the limitations of the TRUST, TRUTH, and Values Acts.

A spokesperson for the Madera County Sheriff’s Office says the Madera County Jail was assigned to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office on April 1, 2021.

“Though we are not aware of any erroneous tracking system prior to April 1, 2021, we are fully committed to investigating these allegations and maintaining our history of transparency and accountability to the public we serve,” Madera County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Kayla Gates says.

Other Valley sheriff’s departments did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Romani says the report confirms what many people in the Valley’s immigrant communities suspected: that “there's very much this collusion happening, and that we have evidence to show it.”

“Over the last several years, sheriffs across the Central Valley have not abided by these pro-immigrant laws we have in place and have delayed releasing community members from their custody in order for ICE to pick them up; have transferred community members to ICE who should not have been transferred in the first place three; and have created mechanisms often in consultation with ICE to facilitate ICE arrests,” Romani says.

That’s why she says the ACLU supports the passage of Assembly bill 937, also known as the VISION Act, which would eliminate the exceptions in the TRUST, TRUTH and Values acts by prohibiting state and local law enforcement agencies from making any transfers to ICE.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.