The Orange County Sheriff’s Department said it would publicly list dates that inmates will be released, an effort to provide information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by utilizing a provision to a law meant to limit coordination with the agency.
“This action will enhance communication between the Sheriff’s Department and our law-enforcement partners to remove dangerous offenders from our community,” the department said in a statement Tuesday, challenging California State Bill 54, otherwise known as the California Values Act. A provision in the law allows for the release dates to be handed over if the information is made public. But even proponents of the sheriff’s new rule described the policy as a “loophole” and “workaround” contrary to the spirit of the law, which is to limit cooperation with immigration authorities in many cases.
Critics say the measure will cast too wide a net and hand ICE information on the whereabouts of undocumented immigrants who may never be charged with a crime.
The move comes as California battles the federal government over how local authorities cooperate with federal immigration agencies. SB54 came into effect Jan. 1 amid intense criticism by the Trump administration over sanctuary policies that shield immigrants from increased risk of detention by ICE. On March 6, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that a trio of state laws, including SB54, violate the Constitution.
On Tuesday, Orange County’s all-Republican Board of Supervisors voted to join the lawsuit, the Associated Press reported.
Inmate information is already publicly available in a database called “Who’s in Jail” for Orange County, south of Los Angeles. But the new rule will populate each profile with the date the inmate will be released from custody. It will not include the inmate’s immigration status, Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
However, the information will be available for anyone released, “whether their sentence was served or charges were dropped,” Carrie Braun, a department spokeswoman, told The Post.
This raises the possibility that people whose charges are dropped could nevertheless fall into ICE custody, critics say.
It would “give ICE the ability to basically net all the people who pass through” the jails, Annie Lai, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of California at Irvine, told The Post.
State Sen. Kevin de León (D), who authored SB54, disputed the assertion that the bill harms the ability of law enforcement to hand over dangerous undocumented immigrants to ICE.
“What it does do is prevent law enforcement from acting as ICE agents, hunting down and rounding up hard-working immigrants in our communities,” he said in a statement to The Post.
The bill includes provisions to lift restrictions on coordinating operations with ICE if law enforcement encounters major criminals such as violent offenders or drug traffickers.
Barnes said the new rule will safeguard the community.
“Our focus is on criminals, not on the community,” he said, and reiterated that the policy does not mean the sheriff’s department will pursue and detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.
If undocumented immigrants with criminal records are released and reoffend, that follow-on offense is a preventable crime, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which argues for more restrictive immigration policies across the United States.
“The only people [SB54] protects is criminal aliens who are deportable,” she said, adding that lawmakers are “hellbent” on punishing law enforcement authorities rather than criminals.
De León disagreed.
“The notion that the California legislature is looking to punish our local law enforcement is nonsense,” he said. “California is not in the business of deporting people — that’s ICE’s job.”
A number of studies have concluded that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than U.S. citizens, though a 2009 study co-authored by Vaughan disputed those findings on the basis of “contrary information” and a lack of reliable data.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has been a financial beneficiary of tighter immigration enforcement.
The department estimates it generates $27 million in revenue annually from a contract with ICE to house detainees waiting for deportation proceedings, Braun said. The original contract in 2010 called for 838 beds. That increased last May by 120 beds, Braun said.
More detainees means more revenue, which is used to augment the department’s general fund, a spokesman told Southern California Public Radio last May.
Braun told The Post that the new department policy to publish release dates was not affected by that contract or the revenue it brings.
ICE, which has been critical of SB54, believes the sheriff’s department’s new policy is encouraging, ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan said in a statement.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the department “have been a valued partner of ICE for many years,” he said.
This post had been updated.