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Feds won't transfer some immigrant suspects to California custody, citing 'sanctuary state' law

Feds won't transfer some immigrant suspects to California custody, citing 'sanctuary state' law
Students at a 2017 rally in Highland Park in support of SB 54. Federal authorities have cited the so-called sanctuary state measure in refusing to hand over some criminal suspects to state law enforcement officials. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

As California moves ahead with policies to limit law enforcement cooperation on immigration-related offenses, U.S. authorities are responding in kind.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in recent months have refused to transfer some suspects wanted by California law enforcement agencies for crimes including sexual assault and drug possession.

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The new approach breaks long-established law enforcement custody protocols and is escalating tension between the federal government and California over the so-called sanctuary state law.

For years, criminal suspects encountered by U.S. immigration agents, either along the border or at ports of entry such as airports, have routinely been transferred to state agencies.

Now, federal authorities are instead deporting some suspects back to Mexico or charging them with immigration-related criminal offenses, which places them in federal custody.

Federal authorities blame Senate Bill 54, saying the California law approved in 2017 restricts local agencies from assuring that suspects will be transferred back into federal custody after their state cases are resolved.

State officials say the law doesn’t prevent cooperation with immigration authorities in cases involving unauthorized migrants with serious criminal records.

Exact figures aren’t available because federal authorities would not disclose how many warrants have been declined, but details of a few cases have emerged in court declarations and deposition by federal immigration officials.

At least five or six suspects a month on average are being returned to Mexico by authorities in San Diego, and authorities in Los Angeles have also stopped honoring some warrants, according to the court documents.

In 2017, federal authorities in California transferred at least 2,300 suspects — both citizens and noncitizens — to state law enforcement agencies, according to federal officials.

“Under the strictures of this bill, if CBP paroles an alien into the custody of a law enforcement agency in California for criminal prosecution, the state law actively inhibits the type of cooperation necessary for [the customs agency] to regain custody,” Todd Hoffman, a Customs and Border Protection executive director, said in a declaration submitted in the federal government’s legal challenge of SB 54.

California officials say federal authorities exaggerate and distort the effects of the law.

Officially dubbed the California Values Act, the law prohibits local authorities from enforcing federal immigration laws: They can’t ask about someone’s immigration status or for personal information.

But they can notify federal immigration agents of an inmate’s release from a county jail if the information is already available to the public or if the person has been convicted of any of 800 specific offenses. Those include serious or violent felonies, domestic violence and sex offenses. The measure also allows federal agents to work with state prison officials on deportations.

“The California Values Act does not conflict with federal immigration laws, but instead works in concert with them,” California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said in May.

In court documents, federal officials paint a worsening public safety picture due to SB 54, citing several recent incidents in which they said state law enforcement agencies declined to cooperate.

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In February, police in El Cajon, a city east of San Diego, refused to assist Border Patrol agents in a freeway pursuit of three suspects, according to a declaration by Rodney Scott, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol’s San Diego sector.

Scott said he has asked that some detainees not be held at the Imperial County Jail after one of them, a convicted felon, was released without immigration authorities being notified.

The Border Patrol sector has declined to transfer at least five suspects to local agencies, including San Diego, Orange and Santa Barbara counties’ sheriff’s departments, Scott said.

They include suspects wanted on felony charges for driving under the influence, probation violation in a drug case, assault and sexual assault. One was a registered sex offender, and two were wanted on no-bail warrants.

At the border crossings in San Diego County, each fugitive encountered by customs agents is handled on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of the alleged crime. Though some are transferred to local agencies, others are not, said Hoffman, the customs official.

“They are removing them [to Mexico] immediately at the port of entry [versus] turning them over to the state and local agency that wants the individual, because we have no assurance we’re going to get that individual back. So they’re not seeing their day in court,” Hoffman said in his deposition.

The sheriff’s departments whose warrants were not honored declined to comment on the specific cases, saying not enough information was provided by immigration officials to identify the fugitives.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department continues to work with federal authorities on criminal task forces, but the recent release into Mexico of a suspect who was wanted on a no-bail warrant is worrisome, said Undersheriff Don Barnes, who is running for sheriff and is critical of SB 54.

“My concern is that [the suspect] has to be held accountable for a charge — presumably a significant charge, a no-bail felony warrant — and is not being returned to the criminal justice system to face charges,” Barnes said.

A spokeswoman for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, two of whose warrants were not honored, said the department does cooperate with federal agents by providing notification of release dates of suspects who have prior convictions for serious crimes.

“Law enforcement in the San Diego region has and will continue to have a strong culture of cooperation within the confines of the law,” said the spokeswoman, Lt. Karen Stubkjaer.

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