‘Our community is made up of immigrants.’ Tensions high at Fresno forum on ICE arrests

Emotions ran high at an immigration forum Tuesday in front of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, resulting in some speakers being removed from the event.

The event was the first public forum under the Transparent Review of Unjust Transfers and Holds, better known as the TRUTH Act.

Beginning this year, the act began to require local jurisdictions and law enforcement to hold a community forum to allow the public to know what federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are doing in their community.

Local immigration activists were particularly interested in Tuesday’s forum because there have been a rash of ICE arrests at the Fresno courthouse since mid-July. The arrests have prompted concerns among attorneys and immigration activists over whether those individuals’ right to due process are being violated.

Before the meeting began, dozens of immigration advocates had gathered at a morning rally. Jennifer Rojas, a rally organizer with the ICE Out of Fresno Coalition, said the group was present to ensure her community’s sentiments were reflected at the forum.

“Our community is made up of immigrants,” Rojas said, adding that immigrants are an “integral” part of the community.

Sheriff Margaret Mims, a strong vocal supporter of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and ICE, told the board Tuesday she has been “very vocal” in her opposition to California’s Sanctuary Law. The law limits cooperation of local law enforcement agencies with ICE.

“We’ve explained to lawmakers the consequences of not being able to work with ICE in a safe, controlled environment,” she said. “Legislators passed the law anyway, and as predicated, ICE has continued to do their jobs, and they are now forced to do their job in other places.”

ICE has maintained it’s necessary to make arrests at places like courthouses, because California was making it difficult for the agency to apprehend individuals. “This law does not keep our public safer,” Mims said. “It does nothing for victims of crime, and it does not hold accountable those who are here illegally who commit a crime, get arrested and get booked into a jail. That sends the wrong message to victims of crime.”

Immigration advocates, on the other hand, say the recent ICE courthouse arrests send a chilling message to the community, and will prevent victims and witnesses of crimes from showing up in court, fearing they will be arrested by ICE.

People like Ben Bergquam, a supporter of President Trump and his efforts to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, voiced a much different sentiment when it comes the ICE’s activity in Fresno.

During the rally, Bergquam, a member of Fight Sanctuary State, he held a sign that read: “Thank you Sheriff Mims.”

“If you are a criminal, you shouldn’t trust law enforcement, you should be in jail,” he said during the public comment period before going into further anti-immigration rhetoric that prompted county counsel to interrupt his comments, as they were unrelated to the TRUTH Act.

Meanwhile, Mims said sheriff’s deputies are not allowed and will not ask people for their immigration status. However, detention facilities in Fresno County do provide information regarding a person’s release date to ICE. Deputies also respond to requests from ICE by providing release dates or other information if the information is publicly available, she said.

Or if the inmate “has a qualifying conviction as specified in the act,” the department shares that information with ICE, Mims said.

“We do not transfer an individual to immigration authorities, unless authorized by a judicial warrant or a judicial probable cause determination,” she said. “However, if Immigration and Customs Enforcement is present at the time of release, the individual may be taken into their custody.”

According to the data released at Tuesday’s forum, from Jan. 1, 2018 through June 28, the Sheriff’s Office received 330 ICE holds or detainers. There were no ICE interviews conducted at the county jails during the same period due to changes under the state’s Sanctuary Law.

There were three ICE transfers, all from Mexico, during the same time, according to the data. In 2017, the Sheriff’s Office had 549 ICE holds/detainers. A total of eight ICE interviews were conducted at county jails during that year. There were a total of 223 transfers to ICE in 2017, with the majority, or 195, being of Mexican nationality, followed by 14 from El Salvador and five from Laos.

Sal Quintero, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, ended the forum around 12:30 p.m., which upset some members of the public hoping to speak.

Quintero said the board had already devoted more than an hour for public comment, “I don’t now how I could have accommodated everyone,” he said. “I just tried to do the best I could.” Quintero said he gave his direct office line at the meeting for those who want to reach him.

Maria Romani, an immigration rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said Tuesday’s forum was a good first step, but she believes “it fell short on many aspects.”

There’s wasn’t enough notice for the public, and there were people who were not given the space to provide comment, she said. The forum was about transparency and giving people the opportunity to ask Mims questions about her collaboration with ICE, plus provide comments about her policies.

“I do think that ... the manner in which it was ultimately held, I don’t think it complies with the spirit of what the law intended to do, which is unfortunate” she said, adding that hopefully, the Board of Supervisors will use the lessons learned for next year’s forum.

Romani said her organization will likely follow-up with Mims, given that apart from the data that was shared, not much was disclosed about the process that her office uses to communicate with ICE.

“How do people end up in the hands of ICE because we know that happens,” she said. “That information wasn’t made transparent. We know those conversations take place because in a public records request we made, we know that they have a whole ICE communication form.”

She said her organization is aware that Mims’ office faxes ICE certain information, which triggers ICE to call the Sheriff’s Office, and ask for release dates of inmates.

“None of that information was discussed today by her,” she said. “It really does leave us with more questions.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Bergquam was escorted by security from the meeting. Others were escorted from the meeting, but Bergquam was not among them.