By Karina Ioffee
January 11, 2011
Half of all people arrested by federal immigration authorities in Sonoma County in the past two years were never convicted of any crime, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) statistics obtained by Patch.
Out of more than 500 people arrested or booked into ICE custody from October 2008 through September 2010, 286 were labeled non-criminal, despite being apprehended under ICE's Secure Communities program, a new effort aimed at rooting out violent criminal aliens.
Additionally, 50 percent of the people deported in the same time period from Sonoma County had no criminal charges against them, the documents show.
Immigrant advocates point to the numbers as evidence that Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office deputies are cooperating with federal immigration authorities to stop, question, detain and eventually deport undocumented immigrants whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.
California law bars local police agencies from cooperating with federal immigration officials in apprehending illegals, unless a person has committed a crime.
Many undocumented people--typically Latinos--wind up in detention after being stopped during routine traffic stops, such as when someone is pulled over for a broken taillight or for failing to stop at a red light, explains Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney who has represented many Latino immigrants.
During a stop, if a deputy suspects that a driver may be illegal or if the person is not able to present a driver's license, he can enter the person's name into the Secure Communities database. This cross references information from the Department of Justice with immigration records. If there is no match, the person is assumed to be illegal and apprehended.
This is what happened to 30-year-old Gloria Lopez Gutierrez who was deported in 2009 after being arrested for driving without a license. Lopez Gutierrez’s church friends gathered enough money to post her bail, but the woman was still kept behind bars because an ICE hold had been placed on her, according to Coshnear.
“People are kept in jail for an extra day or two until ICE comes around and apprehends them," he said. "The Sheriff’s Department assists ICE in ways in which it is not mandated to do so."
The Sheriff’s Office denies the allegation.
“I challenge anyone who says this to show us proof,” said Matt McCaffrey, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. “Time and time again, we find there is a reason people are picked up—whether it’s on an outstanding warrant or something else.”
In light of the alleged problem, one group is pushing for an ordinance to prevent county funds from being used to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants, while continuing to assist with the removal of aliens convicted of serious felonies.
The so-called "family unity ordinance" is being spearheaded by the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, an advocacy group that wants to put the issue before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors "as soon as possible."
Several supervisors who could be reached for comment refused to speculate on an ordinance that is not yet on the agenda. But there is evidence that they are not eager to jump into the debate, deferring to state and federal jurisdiction. However, as the last election indicated, "sanctuary" or at least the extent to which local law enforcement cooperates with immigration agents, is an issue on the minds of many voters.
Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has repeatedly said that it "does not care about immigration status" and just wants to "solve crimes and protect the community."
However, Sheriff's deputies and ICE agents do occasionally work together, such as when ICE accompanies the department's Gang Enforcement unit to locate known gang members who are undocumented, McCaffrey said.
"They come to us because our guys have pretty good knowledge of where these gang members can be found and will work with us to track those individuals down," he said. "We don't assist them or keep them from making arrests. They are peace officers and can enforce the law."
Federal immigration agents also have a steady presence at the Sonoma County Jail, coming by at least twice a week.
Critics allege many innocent people — usually young Latino males — are apprehended during the course of gang suppression operations by the sheriff's office. Many of these operations focus on heavily Latino communities — where gang problems do exist — and result in racial profiling by officers who question men with shaved heads and tattoos.
"What we've got is a dragnet that's catching young Latino males whether they've committed any crime or not, and setting them up for deportation," Coshnear said.
The sheriff's office vehemently denies the allegation.
"We don't make a stop because we think someone is an illegal alien and we don't engage in racial profiling," McCaffrey said.
The Sheriff's Office says the high number of people who are arrested but never convicted is due to immigration raids.
"After all, you have to ask yourself, 'What is ICE's job?" McCaffrey said.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that it does not conduct raids in Sonoma County, but instead focuses on "targeted enforcement," whose number one priority is rooting out criminals, said spokeswoman Lori Haley.
"We are looking at convicted criminal aliens who have been identified for immigration enforcement," Haley said. "Our priority is people who have committed the worst crimes, however we can still take enforcement action against people who are in the country illegally."
Two years ago, the dispute culminated in a lawsuit against Sonoma County filed in 2008 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
One of the plaintiffs is a 23-year-old Latino immigrant named Francisco, who was apprehended by gang detectives while driving in Santa Rosa several years ago.
"The officer ordered me out of the vehicle and asked me if I was a gangster, a Sureno, then if I had any tattoos," said Francisco, who asked that his last name and country of origin not be revealed, pending a lawsuit.
"I told him 'no' about the gangs and 'yes' about the tattoos, and I showed him the tattoo on my shoulder, which says 'Rest in Peace.'" Francisco says it refers to his relationship with a girlfriend.
After Francisco was patted down, he was directed to an ICE agent standing about 15 feet away, he said in a sworn affidavit.
"I knew I didn't want to talk to that ICE officer or answer his questions, but they kept us there and it didn't look like they'd let us leave until I answered his questions."
Francisco was arrested, booked into Sonoma County Jail and then transferred to a detention facility in San Francisco. Heeding his family's advice, Francisco refused to sign anything. Instead, he asked for an immigration judge, who concluded that Francisco had been illegally searched, resulting in charges being dropped.
Many others aren't so lucky and are usually so terrified that they sign a voluntary departure form agreeing to be sent to their home country, Coshnear said.
The Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County estimates that some 60 families in Sonoma County are affected each month. They don't get a chance to say goodbye to family and friends or collect of any of their belongings before being dropped off at the border, the group claims.
"You get the feeling that in Sonoma County if you are undocumented or you happen to be driving without a license because you can't get one, you have no civil rights," said Mario Funes, 40, a legal immigrant who lives in Rohnert Park and is originally from El Salvador.
Another issue being haggled over in the ACLU lawsuit against the county is immigration holds automatically placed on undocumented immigrants who are detained by law enforcement officials and transported to jail. The ACLU maintains immigration holds on people who have not been charged with a crime are unconstitutional.
"People are sitting in jail, they have no notice of the charges against them and they have no access to a judge," said Julia Harumi Mass, the lead ACLU attorney in the suit against Sonoma County. "There is no probable cause to be holding them and just letting people stew in jail for four days."
The end result is a community terrified--of driving, of going outside, of doing anything that could result in arrest and deportation, advocates say. And even when people need help, they think twice before calling the authorities.
"It is really affecting the trust that Latino people have of the police," Funes said. "People don't want to say anything because they are so afraid."