Activists blocked M Street in front of the Fresno County Jail for about five hours on Monday as they protested deportations of undocumented persons by the U.S. government and the county's collaboration with federal immigration officers.
The protesters demanded that Sheriff Margaret Mims stop cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented arrestees for potential deportation under the Secure Communities program. Some of the marchers carried handmade signs calling for an end to deportations that separate families.
The protest was planned as a rally in front of the Fresno County Courthouse by a group called Fresno Immigrant Youth in Action in collaboration with California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance. But as the rally attracted more participants, eventually growing to more than 70, the protesters moved to nearby M Street, choking the street between Merced and Fresno streets and blocking a driveway used by patrol cars leaving the jail after booking arrested suspects.
There, protesters used a pair of stepladders to hang a banner declaring Mims the county's "deporter in chief," and several used bicycle locks to anchor themselves to the ladders. Throughout the morning, protesters marched in a circle in the street, chanting slogans such as "undocumented and unafraid," "liberation, not deportation," and "no papers, no fear, immigrants are marching here."
Luis Ojeda, a 23-year-old who said he's originally from Colima, Mexico, and has been in Fresno for about two years, was one of several protesters from the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance who locked himself by the neck to a ladder on M Street. He said he and the others will remain "as long as it takes ... to stop all deportations."
"President Obama cannot claim to support (immigration) reform while at the same time they're still deporting people," Ojeda said. "We're going to be here until they stop the separation of our families."
"We'll do whatever it takes," he added, but would not answer if that included possible arrest for the protest.
Despite Ojeda's as-long-as-it-takes/whatever-it-takes pledge, the protest disbanded by about 3:30 p.m.
The subject of the protesters' ire was the Secure Communities program operated by ICE. When suspects are booked into the jail, their fingerprints are scanned and run through a national criminal database. Under the Secure Communities program, those fingerprints are also run through the federal Department of Homeland Security's immigration database. According to ICE, if a person has had a previous encounter with federal immigration officers and pops up as a match in its database, ICE can issue a "detainer" asking the jail to hold the person for an extra 48 hours so the agency can assess whether the person may be subject to deportation.
All 58 of California's counties participate in Secure Communities. Fresno County joined the program in March 2010.
One of the protest organizers, Gelasio Rodriguez of Fresno, said his older brother was deported about two years after he was arrested for driving without a license.
"We're calling upon President Obama to stop deportations, and we're asking Sheriff Mims to stop collaborating with ICE and separating our families," said Rodriguez, a member of Fresno Immigrant Youth in Action. He added that many of the marchers had family members who had been deported after being arrested for minor violations. "These are working people, family people, not criminals."
Throughout the morning, a trio of Fresno Police Department motorcycle officers stood by at the nearby intersection of M and Merced streets watching the protest and keeping cars from passing through on M Street. They had no plans to roust the activists. While the protest was illegal, one said, "we're only blocking the street until this winds down."
At about 11:30 a.m., the protesters sat down in the middle of the street and shared stories about why they showed up. The gathering picked up steam after five sheriff's deputies in riot gear emerged from the jail and took up positions on the blocked driveway. Their appearance energized the protesters, who resumed their chanting and marching. The deputies made no other moves and went back inside the building after about 15 minutes.
Sheriff's spokesman Chris Curtice said the protest caused only a minor disruption at the jail, forcing departing patrol cars to use the L Street entrance instead of the M Street exit after booking suspects into the jail.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Mims said she supported the protesters' right to freedom of speech "and to legally and peacefully assemble."
"At the same time, victims of crime deserve justice and protection by law enforcement," she said. "Perpetrators of crime ... should not be shielded from consequences. My priority is to enforce criminal laws and protect victims of crime."
Mims added that it's up to the federal government, not the sheriff's office, "to enforce federal immigration law," and said her office will continue to communicate with ICE "as we would with any law enforcement agency."
But, she added, her department will comply with the "Trust Act," legislation passed by state lawmakers that takes effect Jan. 1, which prohibits local police agencies from detaining people on ICE holds after a person becomes eligible for release except under certain conditions. Those conditions include:
• Conviction for a serious or violent felony or a felony punishable by time in state prison.
• Conviction within the past five years for a misdemeanor charge punishable as either a misdemeanor or a felony (a "wobbler" case), or a felony conviction, for a wide range of crimes including assault, sexual abuse, rape, kidnapping, child abuse, burglary, robbery, felony DUI, escape, felony drug charges, using a firearm in the commission of a crime, or other serious offenses.
• Current listing on the state's Sex and Arson Registry.
• Being charged with a serious or violent felony.
• Conviction for a range of federal crimes or identified by ICE as being wanted on an outstanding federal arrest warrant.
If none of those conditions are satisfied, the law states, "an individual shall not be detailed on the basis of an immigration hold after the individual becomes eligible for release from custody."
Federal ICE officials did not respond to a request for comment on the protest or information on the number of deportations from Fresno County under the Secure Communities program. The sheriff's office was unable to provide statistics on the number of immigration detention holds requested by ICE since Fresno County joined the program in March 2010.
An ICE report earlier this year indicated that nearly 140,000 fingerprint records from Fresno County jail bookings had been run through the federal immigration database between March 2010 and May 2013, resulting in 1,877 people who were "removed and returned" to their home country through Secure Communities.
They included 516 "Level 1" convicted criminals, people whose record included convictions for a serious felony or for two or more felonies punishable by more than a year in prison. Another 272 were deemed "Level 2" criminals with a conviction for less-serious felonies or three or more misdemeanors. The figures also include 412 "Level 3" criminals with one to three misdemeanor convictions.
Also among the deportees were 14 ICE fugitives, 587 detainees with prior deportations on their records, and 76 people who had violated or overstayed their visas.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, firstname.lastname@example.org or @tsheehan on Twitter.