San Mateo County officials are slated to meet early next week to discuss a Sheriff’s Office practice of transferring inmates to federal immigration agency custody after residents came out strongly against the practice, calling it traumatic to some of the most vulnerable communities.
“The question comes down to what makes the community safer and I’m just extremely concerned that any cooperation with ICE builds such a high level of distrust with the community and at the end of the day makes it harder for law enforcement to do its job,” Supervisor Dave Pine said during Wednesday’s Truth Act forum.
Though most interactions with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are prohibited by the state through Senate Bill 54, approved in 2017, some exceptions are made for individuals who have committed serious and violent crimes.
Agencies that do cooperate with inmate transfers to ICE are mandated by the state to hold a forum at least once a year as conditioned under the state’s Truth Act, which was approved in 2016.
Wednesday’s forum marks the fourth held by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, run by Sheriff Carlos Bolanos who used the event as a moment to justify the relationship and to debunk criticisms.
“As the sheriff, it is my primary responsibility to do everything I can to keep our county and our residents safe from serious and violent criminals,” Bolanos said. “I don’t feel we are failing the system. I feel we are protecting the communities that we serve.”
Bolanos, who noted he’s the son of immigrants, argued that the immigration status of individuals booked by any law enforcement agency is unknown before fingerprinting and that the information is only accessible by ICE through a National Crime Information Center.
It’s then up to ICE agents to send the department a request to be notified when an inmate is scheduled for release, Bolanos said. Inmates are then given a consent form notifying them of the upcoming interview with the agency and informing them of the Sheriff’s Office’s intent to comply with the request.
The number of San Mateo County inmates put through the process has dropped over the years, Bolanos said. In 2018, the first year counties were required to report transfers to the state, a total of 38 inmates were transferred to ICE custody, followed by 46 in 2019, 21 in 2020 and 15 in 2021. Only the most violent inmates are transferred and not all transferred inmates are deported, Bolanos asserted.
Immigration advocates dissent
But immigration advocates argue that the numbers have only fallen in recent years due to a dwindling number of inmates booked in jails during the pandemic, requiring the department to take action before populations increase again.
“Without an actual change to the sheriff’s policy, ending ICE notifications and transfers, we can expect the number of ICE pickups in San Mateo County to increase as COVID-19 precautions decrease and of course even one ICE transfer is unacceptable,” Melanie Kim, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus said Wednesday.
Kim also noted that the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office participates in more transfers than any other Bay Area county. In 2020, Alameda County transferred eight inmates to ICE custody and Solano County transferred one while no transfers were conducted by Marin, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Sonoma and Napa counties, she said.
The process to handover an individual to ICE is also extremely complicated, Kim said, noting eight Sheriff’s Office employees are tasked with completing the transfers. Local law enforcement agencies are prohibited from using department resources when cooperating with the transfers, Kim said.
Bolanos acknowledged that staff does process ICE requests to prevent mistakes but said no additional department resources are directed toward the task.
Scott Sherman, managing attorney for the county’s Private Defender Program Adult Division, noted that many clients may opt to enter pleas for higher offenses despite not committing the harsher crime to prevent deportation but doing so puts them at risk of deportation in counties that comply with transfers.
He also noted the Sheriff’s Office is not required to process the requests given that they’re not judicial warrants. He said the process also lacks a formal review process from the requesting agency leaving room for human error.
Instead, Sherman recommended the department change its policy to only accept warrants that would need to be signed by a federal judge.
“It is a long tradition in this country that someone gets a warrant before arresting,” Sherman said.
Angel Bonito, a former county resident and Maguire Correctional Facility inmate, further pleaded with the county to end voluntary transfers to ICE by reflecting on his own experience. After serving his time at the center, Bonito was transferred to ICE custody in 2017 where he spent three years fighting for his right to stay in California where his mother and two children live.
A judge ultimately denied Bonito his claim and a deportation notice was issued early this March, he said while virtually addressing the board from Tijuana, Mexico, a city lining the border between the two counties.
“Being away from my family and not being able to see them was the worst feeling I ever had to endure in my life,” Bonito said. “The fact that I was deported not only denies me the opportunity to live in the U.S. but also prohibits me the right to be a father to my kids.”
Looking for change
Reflecting on Bonito’s story and public testimony from more than 100 participants, Pine said he found it difficult to side with a legal system that would allow some people to return to their family after serving their time while further separating others based on their immigration status.
He was joined by board President David Canepa and Supervisor Warren Slocum in saying they evolved on the issue and believed the county’s relationship with ICE needed to end.
Though Supervisor Don Horsley, a former sheriff, shared concerns for public safety, he and Supervisor Carole Groom also supported reforms and suggested the county look into potential solutions.
County Counsel John Beiers said the board was within its authority to establish a committee to review the issue or to approve a recommendation requesting the sheriff end the practice but they ultimately have no power to dictate how he engages in law enforcement given that he’s publicly elected.
With that feedback, the board agreed to direct staff to return during its Nov. 16 meeting with a resolution that would establish a committee to further investigate the issue within three months.
But eager to move the process forward, Canepa decided after the meeting to appoint Horsley and Groom to a subcommittee that will meet with Bolanos early next week, Canepa said in a phone interview.
“[The community has] come out in full force,” Canepa said. “I’m encouraged by the dialogue from our community and the listening that I heard from the sheriff and I’m confident that we’ll come up with a solution that makes sense for the San Mateo County residents.”
Bolanos was not asked to respond following public comment but said in a phone interview after the meeting that he appreciated hearing the different perspectives brought forward and intends on taking them into consideration during next week’s meeting.
“I do feel strongly about the public safety aspect of cooperating with ICE as it relates to these individuals but I also think I have an obligation to listen to the residents of the county,” Bolanos said. “It’s my job as sheriff to listen to them.”
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