Orange County quits program that exemplified its tough stance on illegal immigration

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens at a news conference in 2016 in Santa Ana.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County stands as an outlier in California, a state that has become increasingly friendly to immigrants.

At a time when state leaders resisted President Trump’s hard line against illegal immigration, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens reached out to the Trump administration, stating that she wanted her deputies to work more closely with federal immigration officials.

When state legislators drafted Senate Bill 54, a measure that positioned the Golden State as a “sanctuary” for those who are in the country without legal status, Hutchens vehemently spoke out in opposition.


But as 2017 drew to a close and with SB 54 taking effect at the start of this year, Hutchens took a step back and ended her agency’s participation in a federal-local immigration enforcement program known as 287(g), which allowed Orange County deputies to act as immigration agents in its jail.

The program was emblematic of the county’s historical opposition to illegal immigration and cozy relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The O.C. Sheriff’s Department was a holdout in California, becoming the only government entity in the state to participate in the program. Los Angeles County dropped out of the program in 2015.

It’s no surprise that a place that gave rise to some of the most influential immigration enforcement activists in the country would hold on for so long, said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at UC Irvine.

“It certainly has always been an anchor of right wing populism in the state,” he said.

In the mid-1990s, Barbara Coe of Huntington Beach launched Proposition 187, a ballot initiative approved by voters that sought to deny public services such as public schooling and healthcare to people in the country illegally. The measure was eventually struck down in the courts.

In 2005, Jim Gilchrist of Aliso Viejo co-founded the Minuteman Project, a civilian militia that patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.


On Dec. 27, Hutchens announced she’d halt her department’s participation in program because it would run afoul of the state legislation that she’d lobbied against but was ultimately signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. Still, Hutchens promised to cooperate with ICE as much as the law allowed. Orange County, for example, has a contract to house ICE detainees in its two jails and will continue to do so.

“We were always against SB 54 because it hinders our ability to cooperate with another law enforcement partner,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ray Grangoff said. “It’s put much more responsibility on the federal government.”

Orange County has long had a closer relationship with ICE than any other county in the state, and that isn’t likely to change unless the county’s leadership changes, DeSipio said.

“Orange County has just been stuck in the past. It still looks like the state used to in the past and I think it will take a change in the Board of Supervisors. For that sort of change to happen, you need a change in the electoral demographics that can have an effect on county agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

The 287(g) program trained deputies to screen jail inmates for their immigration status, place a hold on those they deemed removable from the country and notify ICE. The new state law forbids state and local law enforcement from using resources or staff to help immigration agents with deportations.

Under the new law, local law enforcement agencies can still notify ICE of inmates’ release dates if they were convicted of specific crimes — mostly violent or serious ones.

However, it’s up to ICE agents to check arrest records to find out who is in jail and request notification of an inmate’s release date if they want to send an agent to pick up that person for possible removal from the country after they’re released, Grangoff said.

Orange County has an estimated 250,000 residents who lack legal status, according to an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Immigration rights advocates had lobbied county officials for years to leave the program, contending that it encourages racial profiling. The program became so controversial that the Obama administration scaled it back and reduced its funding.

Yet, Orange County remained on board because Hutchens said it helped her deputies get rid of criminals in the community.

“It allowed us the opportunity to be in communication with ICE on serious and violent offenders. ICE would know they were in custody and they would make it possible for them to remove dangerous people from our community once they serve our local sentence,” Grangoff said.

In 2016, 391 county inmates were turned over to ICE under the 287(g) program, he said. That’s less than 1% of the approximately 57,000 inmates.

Immigrant rights activists welcomed the end of 287(g) in Orange County but remain cautious.

Despite a demographic shift in Orange County and the results of the 2016 election, in which a majority of the county’s voters supported the Democratic presidential nominee for the first time since the 1930s, DeSipio said the establishment in Orange County is reflective of “old California.”

“Those elements are still present in the county and are influential in county politics.” he said. “The southern part of the county is very much like it was in the past. There is a core of support of the electorate there for strong enforcement of immigration law.”

Follow Cindy Carcamo on Twitter @thecindycarcamo