Blog Archive

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Controversial immigration check at Santa Cruz County Jail speeds efficiency

By Stephen Baxter
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 01/04/2011

SANTA CRUZ — Nearly five months since a controversial fingerprint immigration check started at Santa Cruz County Jail, federal and local authorities say it has accelerated the deportation of illegal immigrants who have serious criminal histories.

The new Immigration and Customs Enforcement program, called Secure Communities, started Aug. 10 in Santa Cruz and has been rolled out to 38 of the state’s 58 counties. It checks jail inmates’ fingerprints against Department of Homeland Security immigration records and FBI criminal records.

County Jail staff used to fax a list of inmates’ names to federal authorities, but they now press the inmates’ fingertips on a machine and send the information to ICE in minutes.

“With this new program, literally some of the holds are coming through within an hour or two of their arrest,” said Jeff Marsh, chief deputy of the County Jail.

Fewer of the short-term inmates with immigration issues and serious criminal histories slip through the cracks and are released, Marsh said.

ICE holds are essentially triggered when an inmate has prior immigration issues and has been arrested for a serious crime, or if the person has a serious criminal history in addition to being an illegal immigrant, said Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman from Laguna Niguel.

The person must have previous contact with the FBI or Homeland Security, Kice said.

Since August, 119 County Jail inmates have been taken into ICE’s custody through Secure Communities, according to the most recent ICE records that ended Nov. 30.

Of those 119 inmates, 43 were deported to their home country, Kice said.

Tuesday, 28 inmates in Santa Cruz County Jail had ICE holds, according to jail records.

Those inmates will be in custody until their case is adjudicated in Santa Cruz, then ICE officials can transport them to an immigration court or a detention facility if the inmate has a criminal record, Kice said.

A match in the ICE system is based on the “totality of a person’s criminal and immigration history,” Kice said.

“In many instances, non-criminal aliens coming into ICE custody have been previously arrested for criminal offenses, though they were never convicted. They also may have been deported before or have outstanding orders of deportation. Other non-criminal cases that would be prioritized for enforcement are aliens with an affiliation to a known street gang or persons who have overstayed their visa,” Kice wrote in an e-mail.

The new system in Santa Cruz has made a difference for inmates who are in custody for public drunkenness and typically stay for four hours, Marsh said. In that time, ICE could match a person and ask for a hold.

Some immigration advocates have balked at that change, worrying that police could racially profile suspects to trigger immigration checks and deportation.

Santa Cruz police spokesman Zach Friend said that has not been the case.

“Secure Communities has nothing to do with Santa Cruz police. It simply doesn’t involve us,” Friend said.

The Santa Cruz police manual also says as much, Friend said.

Suspicion of being an undocumented immigrant is not a legitimate basis for an officer’s first contact with a person, the manual states. To try to protect victims and witnesses of crime who are illegal immigrants, the manual also instructs police not to report them to ICE unless “circumstances indicate that such reporting is reasonably necessary.”

Many Santa Cruz leaders have long supported the city’s so-called Sanctuary City status to protect illegal immigrants against harassment. Members of the City Council spoke out against federal immigration raids in Beach Flats in the early 1980s and against a 2006 raid that netted 107 people in Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Hollister.

Tony Madrigal, a Santa Cruz city councilman who has worked with immigrant issues for years, said residents have raised concerns with Secure Communities since August.

He and people he has spoken to view it as part of a larger issue of communication between immigrants and police, Madrigal said Tuesday.

“When crime has happened in Santa Cruz, (police) have said they can’t do it alone. But everyone in the community needs to feel that there’s that two-way trust. The willingness to cooperate constantly needs to be nurtured. So when something like Secure Communities is considered, there needs to be a conversation with local stakeholders,” Madrigal said.

A community group in Watsonville planned to meet this afternoon to discuss their issues with Secure Communities, Madrigal added.

Marsh, the chief deputy of the jail, said the County Jail had no choice but to implement it.

California leaders signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government to roll out the program throughout the state, Kice said. Santa Cruz was chosen as one of the earlier counties based on its criminal population in the geographical area and the case load that ICE could handle, ICE spokeswoman Kice said.

“Jurisdictions cannot opt out of Secure Communities as it is an information sharing between federal partners,” Kice said.

For more information on ICE or to lodge a complaint of racial profiling, visit


Number Santa Cruz County inmates who are also being held for immigration issues:

Aug. 13, 2010: 26

Jan. 4, 2011: 28

SOURCE: County Jail, Sheriff’s Office