Opinion: Protect immigrant communities from sheriffs’ collusion with ICE

‘County sheriffs are working to advance an anti-immigrant agenda’

By Dolores Huerta and Maria Romani

Special to CalMatters

Our Central Valley communities are traumatized. County sheriffs are working to advance an anti-immigrant agenda, undermining the spirit of pro-immigrant state laws like the Values Act, or “sanctuary law,” by funneling people to federal immigration agents through shadow transfer systems.

Legislators must pass a proposed law — Assembly Bill 937, the VISION Act — that would clearly prohibit law enforcement in California from transferring people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and protect the most vulnerable immigrant communities in our state from sheriffs’ horrendous abuse of power.

According to records obtained by the ACLU of Northern California, sheriffs’ departments throughout the Central Valley have devised schemes to evade the Values Act and transfer community members to ICE from jail — individuals who have been granted release through the legal system. If not for the fact that they are immigrants, these community members would be able to return to their families.

For instance, in 2019, Kern County sheriffs’ officials arrested one of our community members, a widow and primary breadwinner for her three children, while she was working in the citrus and almond fields. She was falsely accused of stealing a bag of fruit and sent to jail. After she paid bail, two ICE agents were waiting — inside the jail — to arrest her. She spent six months in immigration detention, separated from her children.

ICE’s presence at the jail was no coincidence. Sheriffs’ officials colluded with immigration agents to hand her over to ICE, even though this kind of collusion has been illegal under the Values Act since 2018. Under this law, only certain criminal convictions permit county law enforcement officials to transfer somebody to ICE. Although this community member did not fall within these requirements, that did not stop local law enforcement from ripping her away from her family and triggering a cycle of trauma in her life.

Her story fits within a larger pattern of underhanded collusion between Central Valley sheriffs’ officials and ICE. Documents show local law enforcement offices have created shadow transfer systems to avoid the public reporting required under the Values Act. For example, sheriffs will “release” people into non-public areas of jails, where ICE agents are often waiting, and where the detainee cannot leave the premises to rightfully return home.

Given these ploys to evade public scrutiny, the ACLU estimates the total number of people transferred to ICE custody since the enactment of the Values Act is nearly three times higher than the number that Central Valley sheriffs’ offices have officially reported.

Central Valley immigrants are particularly vulnerable to civil rights abuses. High poverty levels, language barriers and scant access to legal assistance give them little recourse to defend their rights.

Yet this community has deep roots in the region and contributes substantially to our nation’s economy and well-being. Nearly three-quarters of undocumented people in the Central Valley have lived in the United States for more than a decade, about 80,000 of them are homeowners and an average of 20% of children live with at least one undocumented family member. Across the region, noncitizen workers disproportionately occupy agricultural jobs. It is the labor of farmworkers in the counties of Fresno, Kern and Tulare that provides the United States with the majority of its agriculture.

Sheriffs’ determination to exploit and destroy this community through unscrupulous collusion tactics with ICE shows our laws need changing if our state truly values protecting immigrants from lawless agents of government.

We call on our legislators to pass AB 937, introduced by Democratic Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles, Ash Kalra of San Jose, and Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles. The VISION Act draws a bright-line standard that would leave no room for bad-faith interpretation of the law. It would sever sheriff-ICE partnerships and prevent officials from searching out legal loopholes to dismantle the lives of California immigrants.

Without stronger legal protections, anti-immigrant officials in our state will continue to find dark corners in which to operate, and the harm to individual immigrants will continue to ripple out to their families and to our communities.

Dolores Huerta is a labor leader, human rights activist and resident of the Central Valley. Maria Romani is a staff attorney for the Immigrants’ Rights Program at the ACLU of Northern California and a resident of the Central Valley.

CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.

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