L.A. County sheriff opposes ‘sanctuary state’ bill, saying it would hinder law enforcement

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell believes the "sanctuary state" bill is more likely to hurt immigrants than protect them.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has come out in opposition to a so-called “sanctuary state” bill that would bar state and local policing agencies from using resources for immigration enforcement, according to a letter obtained by The Times.

In the letter addressed to Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the legislation, McDonnell said the measure would block sheriff’s officials from safely transferring inmates with immigration violations housed in county jails into the custody of federal immigration agents, forcing those agents “into our communities in order to search out and find the person they seek.”

“While doing this, they will most surely cast a wide net over our communities apprehending and detaining those not originally the target of the enforcement actions,” McDonnell wrote.


Though the letter is dated March 9, De León’s office received the document in an e-mail Wednesday, his staff said. Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida confirmed the letter is authentic and was sent on March 9. She said McDonnell was unavailable for comment Thursday.

McDonnell’s letter echoes the statements from Republican lawmakers and other sheriffs who have expressed concerns over the legislation. Some stand to lose millions of dollars in federal funding contracts.

But McDonnell’s stance is stirring concerns among residents and immigrant advocates in the communities he polices. It also runs counter to the positions on the legislation by Los Angeles County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, all of whom support the bill.

Josh Rubenstein, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said in a statement:

“We understand the State Legislature is still considering amendments to the bill and we look forward to participating in the ongoing discussions, but we have no comment at this time.”

In a letter to Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, sent in late January, Garcetti said the bill “would help ensure that California’s values are reflected in its policies.”

“Hard-working immigrants who have built their lives in California contribute significantly to our state’s economy and quality of life,” Garcetti wrote. “Immigrant members of our community have rights, and they must be able to engage with law enforcement without fear when they are victims of and witnesses to crimes, seeking basic and other health services, or attending school.”


De León’s measure, Senate Bill 54, would prohibit California law enforcement agencies from using resources — including their facilities, money and personnel — to respond to immigration-related transfer requests or assist federal immigration agents in accessing people for interviews, such as in jails.

To address some of the sheriffs’ concerns, De León on Friday added amendments that would require the state parole board or state corrections department to give the FBI a 60-day advance notice of the release date of inmates with violent convictions who are in the U.S. illegally. Sheriffs officials also would be able to provide the FBI with the scheduled release date of anyone confined in county jail for a misdemeanor offense who also has a violent felony conviction.

As the elected leader of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, McDonnell runs the largest jail system in the country, which houses approximately 18,000 inmates on any given day. Unlike some sheriff’s departments in California, McDonnell’s agency does not lease jail space to federal officials to house those suspected of immigration violations.

Asst. Sheriff Kelly Harrington, who oversees the jail operation, has previously said that agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have access inside the county’s jail system every day.

McDonnell has emphasized that his deputies do not act as immigration agents and cannot stop people on the street, for example, and inquire about immigration status.

“What we want to be able to do is be as open as we can with the public, to let them know definitively, we’re here to protect you. We’re not here to deport you,” McDonnell said in a recent interview.


But some advocates have raised concerns about how immigration enforcement plays out inside the jails and worry that those in the U.S. illegally could be easily deported once in custody.

In the letter to De León, McDonnell states that the Trust Act — a 2013 law that protects immigrant inmates from federal immigration agents unless they’ve been convicted of certain serious crimes — is “sufficient” in preventing “the unlawful over-detention” of people with possible immigration violations.

He also argued that the measure would not allow those convicted of several types of violent felonies to be flagged to the FBI upon release from jail.

Twitter: @mayalau


Twiter: @jazmineulloa

Times staff writers Dakota Smith and Cindy Chang contributed to this report


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