A year after the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office began partnering with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union says new public records show the partnership is secretive, lacks public oversight and leaves immigrants vulnerable to abuse.
The collaboration started June 22, 2015, and allowed two ICE agents to work from inside Fresno County Jail. They determine whether inmates are in the country legally and examine their criminal history before deciding whether they should be deported. Immigrant rights activists decried the program, while Sheriff Margaret Mims called it a progressive approach to immigration enforcement.
The ACLU submitted a public records request on April 11. The organization found:
- There are no written agreements or contracts between the sheriff’s office and the federal government outlining parameters of the program.
- The sheriff’s office does not monitor or evaluate the program.
- Sheriff’s agents are not trained on the program.
- Inmates are not warned that they will be interviewed by ICE and may not be able to seek legal counsel before the interviews take place. Information about their legal rights is not provided.
- 326 people have been handed over to ICE custody and 174 people have been interviewed by ICE since the program began.
- The sheriff’s office sends daily emails to ICE with a list of foreign-born people detained in the jail and notifies ICE before a person is released.
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“ICE has a long track record of abusing its power and trampling people’s rights,” said ACLU attorney Angélica Salceda. “Letting this rogue agency operate in our community without any sort of transparency and accountability is a recipe for disaster.”
The partnership came in response to the Department of Homeland Security’s Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, which focuses on deporting convicted criminals and others who pose a danger to public safety. Since Fresno’s program started, Kern County entered into a similar partnership with ICE.
There are three levels under PEP. Priority 1, for example, can be immigrants suspected of terrorism, convicted of an aggravated felony or apprehended at the border. Priority 2 includes those convicted of three or more misdemeanors, one significant misdemeanor such as sexual abuse, or having been previously deported. Priority 3 includes those ordered removed on or after Jan. 1, 2014.
As sheriff, it is my job to protect the community.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims
The ACLU and immigrant rights activists held a news conference Thursday afternoon at Fresno County Courthouse Park to release the public record details. In response, the sheriff’s office released a letter Mims wrote to the ACLU in January.
In the letter, Mims says ICE agents focus on the first two PEP priorities.
“These are inmates that are arrested and booked into jail for serious crimes such as robbery, assault, vehicle theft, driving under the influence and domestic violence,” she said. “As sheriff, it is my job to protect the community. A person who is in this country illegally, does not obey the law and is arrested for a crime is not a person I want released back into our community without being held accountable.”
ICE agents perform daily background checks on foreign-born inmates. They have access to inmate records and interview rooms in the jail.
Before the program’s implementation, ICE filed requests for jail staff to notify the federal agency whenever an immigrant of interest was scheduled to be released. Agents would then decide whether to pick that person up for transport to an immigration detention facility.
Advocates demanded an end to the program. Among their other requests, which they said have so far been denied:
- Access to the jail to distribute legal rights information.
- Ability to conduct interviews with inmates to ensure civil rights are not being violated.
- Ability to monitor interviews conducted by ICE as preventive and oversight measure.
Jessica Cabrera Carmona with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance said community members feel unsafe and are now hesitant to call police for help.
It’s unacceptable that ICE agents are running a secret operation out of Fresno County Jail.
Jessica Cabrera Carmona, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance
Cabrera said inmates are facing civil rights violations. She said one Fresno man didn’t consult with an attorney before speaking with ICE agents because they told him he would not be deported. Now he is in deportation proceedings. In another case, Cabrera said a Fresno woman was coerced into signing a document stating she agreed to comply with her deportation.
“It’s unacceptable that ICE agents are running a secret operation out of Fresno County Jail,” she said. “We need strong communities that can trust local law enforcement and are not torn apart by deportation.”