LOS ANGELES – Sheriff Alex Villanueva Tuesday reiterated a promise to remove federal immigration agents from county jails, drawing both boos and applause from a crowd at a Truth Act Community Forum convened by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
“We are going to physically remove ICE from the county jails,” Villanueva said, adding that he also planned to cut down the list of roughly 150 misdemeanor offenses that trigger department cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“We’re going to pare that list down substantially” and reduce it to reflect only the most serious charges, the newly-elected sheriff told the board, saying he planned on “honoring the spirit and the letter of SB 54,” sometimes called the “sanctuary state” law.
The Sheriff’s Department transferred 1,223 individuals to the custody of ICE agents in 2017, according to statistics released under the Truth Act. That amounts to less than half the number of inmates who were released with an outstanding request for detention by federal immigration authorities, according to LASD data.
Roughly a quarter of the people transferred in 2017 had been convicted of health and safety violations, which include drug crimes. Crimes against persons and property crimes made up about 20 percent each. Four percent of those released to ICE agents had been convicted of vehicle code violations.
Advocates for immigrant communities say the vast majority of individuals deported by ICE after release from county jail served their time for low-level, non-violent crimes.
“Are we saying that they should not have a second chance?” asked Andres Kwon of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Crimes should be dealt with by the criminal justice system, not the immigration system.”
Phal Sok said he was an example of someone who was given a second chance, in his case by a pardon from Gov. Jerry Brown.
Sok served 15 years in prison for an armed robbery he committed when he was 17 and was ordered deported to Cambodia, though he had lived in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for 37 years.
“Not everyone that comes out is going to go on to reoffend,” Sok told the board.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Elier Morejon said Villanueva hoped to make promised changes over the next couple of weeks, before the year is out.
Immigration advocates characterized Villanueva’s election as a message from voters to end cooperation with ICE.
“The people have spoken and ousted the sheriff who sided with Trump, ICE and deportations and against the values that make this country great,” said George Chacon of the UCLA Labor Center.
More than a dozen victims’ rights advocates, many wearing T-shirts memorializing victims of crime, urged the sheriff and the board to strictly enforce federal immigration laws.
“Criminal aliens should be turned over to ICE … for the safety of the public,” said Robin Hvidston of the Remembrance Project.
Hvidston wore a shirt bearing the name of De Andre Mitchell, who was killed along with four other victims in a fire deliberately set in a vacant commercial building near MacArthur Park in 2016. Johnny Josue Sanchez, a Honduran man in the U.S. illegally, was convicted of the crime in November. He is expected to be sentenced in January to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Villanueva’s commitment to keep ICE agents out of county jails is not a commitment to end all transfers, Morejon said.
“Just because (the agents are) out of the jail doesn’t mean we’re going to stop turning over individuals,” the commander told the board, saying transfers required by federal law would continue.
Villanueva and other department personnel are still working out how to accommodate those transfers while banning ICE agents from the jails.
Many said they want the sheriff to go further and agree not to offer any assistance to federal immigration agents.
“There must be no involvement with ICE,” said Emi MacLean of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “In a period of learning, the sheriff mistakenly suggested that walking people to ICE would be better than the status quo. It would not and it would be inconsistent with the strong statements he made that he would kick ICE out of the jails in order to defend immigrants.”
Morejon stressed that the department does not ask anyone coming into jail for their immigration status and “never performs federal immigration enforcement as part of its patrol operations.”
Other moves by the sheriff could include changing public access to inmate release dates, which is required under law in order to share that data with ICE.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger expressed concern that victims’ families rely on that data, asking sheriff’s personnel to seek input from various stakeholders before finalizing any decisions.
Separately, the Probation Department reported that it received ICE requests for information on 25 individuals in 2017 and provided contact information for eight men on probation for crimes ranging from petty theft to assault with a deadly weapon