Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Sheriff Carlos Bolanos speaks to the county Board of Supervisors during Tuesday's discussion about current policy on residents’ immigration status.
Whether it’s an undocumented immigrant uneasy about contacting law enforcement to report a crime or a student skipping school due to fears of deportation, San Mateo County supervisors are hoping to assuage fears stemming from the nation’s heated immigration debate.
In a packed room at the County Center Tuesday morning, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution affirming support for people of diverse backgrounds.
Prompted by the Trump administration’s promise to crack down on immigrants living in the United States illegally, officials are striving to balance the needs of their diverse community while adhering to federal laws.
“We all know that the rhetoric and actions coming from Washington, D.C., have been felt from Pescadero to Pacifica and from East Palo Alto to Daly City,” said Supervisor Warren Slocum. “School children have had a difficult time focusing on learning because they were so anxious about what they had heard on television and what that possibly meant to their families. … Some parents are so fearful that they have retreated into the shadows.”
Like other cities and school districts across San Mateo County, supervisors sought to clarify existing policies and assuage fears that the Sheriff’s Office is not in the business of enforcing federal immigration laws.
Citing the public safety benefits of encouraging everyone to feel comfortable contacting law enforcement to report a crime, officials noted the county does not ask for peoples’ immigration status.
ICE in the county jail?
As the only jurisdiction in charge of the jail, the board is not seeking to become a sanctuary county. The Sheriff’s Office complies with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s requests to interview inmates or be notified when they’re released.
Last month alone, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos reported 21 requests from immigration and customs enforcement to interview San Mateo County inmates. It wasn’t until the start of this year that the state began to require the sheriff notify inmates the interviews are not mandatory.
Over the past three months, it has received more than a dozen monthly requests from ICE to be notified of undocumented inmates’ release and the federal agency typically follows through with picking them up from the county jail in Redwood City. In January, the local law enforcement agency received 29 requests from ICE to be notified of an undocumented inmate’s release, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Noting the uncertainty of what’s to come as the new president settles in, the board agreed to begin receiving regular updates of how many requests ICE makes and whether federal immigration officers are continuing to focus on violent or repeat offenders.
Public weighs in
Of 20 members of the public who spoke during the meeting, nearly all were in favor of the board’s resolution. However, many supporters — including legal aid attorneys, representatives with the local American Civil Liberties Union, faith leaders, those who work with children and immigrants — questioned whether the county’s resolution would truly be effective.
Some scrutinized the resolution as county employees might still ask for immigration status while investigating a person for a crime and that law enforcement would continue allowing ICE into the county jail.
“If the intention here is to reassure immigrants, documented and undocumented, that they can interact with county staff and in particular police officers, these provisions seriously undermine that intention,” said Jerald Schwarz, a representative with the ACLU’s San Mateo County chapter.
Resident Candace Anderson spoke to the board suggesting those provisions make the resolution disingenuous.
“Let’s not fool ourselves. With this language included, the welcoming [resolution] means nothing and it’s only an attempt to convince those of us that are not affected by discrimination that we’re living in an inclusive community,” Anderson said.
She also questioned how much federal funding the Sheriff’s Office was actually receiving — a poignant issue since Trump threatened to strip federal support from sanctuary cities, which prompted San Francisco to sue.
Opponents to these types of resolutions and sanctuary proposals have shown dissent to local jurisdictions attempting to shield people from deportation and often question use of the term undocumented.
Community member Art Dent said he worries the concept of citizenship is deteriorating and suggested the sheriff’s terminology was flawed when he made prior statements about protecting “law-abiding” residents.
“They’re in the country without authorization which is, per federal law, illegal,” Dent said while urging the county to be careful.
Sheriff Bolanos, who noted he himself is the child of immigrants, answered questions posed by supervisors and noted his job in the debate was to balance the issues and existing laws.
“I recognize and certainly feel for the fear that is out there in our community and I have to weigh those fears with my responsibilities as the sheriff. But from my perspective, they are all my residents and the people that we serve,” Bolanos said, adding he’d work with supervisors, his legal counsel and the county manager.
A county of immigrants
The immigration debate is particularly poignant for San Mateo County as nearly one in three San Mateo County residents are foreign born — although those statistics don’t equate to the number of undocumented immigrants, said Supervisor Dave Pine.
According to the Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of census data, about 57,000 county residents are without proper documents, including 6,000 children enrolled in local schools and 14,000 DREAMers who qualified under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Moving forward, Pine requested the county receive regular updates about the federal government’s reach into the county jail, which is also a requirement of a state law beginning in 2018. He also suggested the county consider creating a legal defense fund, which could include a matching “challenge grant” wherein private firms are asked to contribute.
Slocum and board President Don Horsley agreed to work with the sheriff to monitor the situation through an informal task force.
Slocum and Horsley spoke about the fear that undocumented women who are victims of domestic violence are hesitant to seek help from law enforcement due to their immigration status.
A former sheriff himself, Horsley recalled the days when hardworking farmworkers in rural coastal areas would flee into the hills at the sight of law enforcement.
“I’m really disappointed by some of the things that have been said by this [presidential] administration,” Horsley said. “You’re going to really rip the fabric out of a lot of communities not just in California, but in Georgia, in Texas, the rest of the country as well. It’s an issue that’s going to affect us all.”
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