L.A. sheriff wants to put tighter limits on ICE. Here are his plans to do it

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva during his address on the state of the department at the Hall of Justice in January.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Alex Villanueva’s upset victory in last fall’s L.A. County sheriff’s race hinged on the overwhelming support he got from immigrant rights advocates and Latino voters.

By vowing to strictly limit his department’s cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and keep the county jails from becoming “a pipeline for deportation,” Villanueva aimed to draw a sharp contrast with incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who initially refused to back California’s so-called sanctuary state law.

Now Villanueva aims to make good on those pledges.

Friday he will unveil a comprehensive plan that he says will mark a “deliberate shift on immigration policy” from that of his predecessor. Among the provisions he’s considering are trimming the list of misdemeanors that could be cause for deportation and reviewing whether the Sheriff’s Department’s website should continue publishing release dates — information that ICE uses to stake out inmates and take them into federal custody.


“I want local law enforcement, and obviously my department, to be viewed as part of the community, working hand in hand with the community and not as agents of immigration enforcement,” Villanueva said in an interview with The Times this week. “We have to balance the needs of the immigrant community and the community at large.”

The political stakes are high. Immigrant rights groups that supported Villanueva’s campaign have been advising him on policy and are closely watching his next moves. From the other side of the debate, one local ICE official already has criticized the new sheriff for favoring policies that the agency thinks could enable immigrants with criminal records to evade justice.

Villanueva’s most significant and controversial step so far has been his directive banning ICE agents from entering Sheriff’s Department facilities, which took effect Feb. 1. Under previous sheriffs, federal officers were granted easy access in order to detain people they believed to be in the country illegally.

ICE agents for years were allowed to use space inside the downtown Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where all inmates are processed in and out of L.A. County Jail. During last year’s campaign, Villanueva said he would not let ICE agents step inside the jails. Instead, he said, released immigrants who were known to have committed crimes would be handed over to ICE in a secure courtyard next to the jail.

After some activists criticized the move, Villanueva reversed course and barred immigration agents from the Sheriff’s Department’s jails and stations, as well as the courthouses where sheriff’s deputies provide security.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), said Villanueva’s directive makes the Sheriff’s Department’s immigration policy one of the most progressive in the country and sets a precedent for other agencies looking to disentangle themselves from ICE.

“This department is doing everything in their power to diminish confusion that they’re working with ICE,” she said. “The reality has finally caught up to the rhetoric.”

Other immigrant rights advocates say these actions alone won’t satisfy their expectations.

“The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department suffers from a deficit of trust that Sheriff Villanueva inherited from his predecessor. He has to work to mend that gap,” said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “If we see that as a result of these changes the number of deportations decreases — and it’s a significant decrease — then we know these changes are going to be meaningful to people. It’s about alleviating the suffering for families facing deportations. That comes down to numbers.”

Villanueva told The Times that he’s in the process of pruning a lengthy list of misdemeanors that are reclassified as felonies under immigration law and used as grounds to deport immigrants in the country illegally and permanent residents alike. He also said only misdemeanors that have occurred within the last three years could be considered for transfer to ICE custody; previously the period was five years.

Alvarado said immigrant rights leaders and Villanueva are still working out how to accommodate those transfers. Some alternatives, such as hiring a private company to deal with the transfers, have been floated.

Thomas Giles, acting field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in Los Angeles, said the sheriff’s new restrictions on federal agents will shield immigrants in the country illegally and “encourage criminal alien activity within Los Angeles county borders.”

“That Sheriff Villanueva would provide sanctuary to criminal aliens evading justice in his jurisdiction mere weeks after a criminal alien was charged in the murder of Northern California police officer Ronil Singh displays a troubling set of priorities,” Giles said in a prepared statement to The Times.

The man suspected in Singh’s death is a Mexican citizen living in the country illegally, authorities have said. Singh, a Newman police officer and an immigrant himself, was fatally shot in December.

The sheriff’s new immigration plan arrives at a time when Villanueva faces intensifying public scrutiny and criticism. Last month, in an extraordinary public rebuke, the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors criticized the sheriff for rehiring a deputy who was fired over domestic abuse allegations and later served as a volunteer on Villanueva’s election campaign.

This week, The Times reported that several watchdog groups contend Villanueva has used unreliable statistics and inconclusive data to support his claim that inmate violence in county jails is rising. The new sheriff also has raised eyebrows for arguing that McDonnell’s attempts to reform a department marred by years of corruption went too far and harmed deputies.

But immigrant rights activists so far have stood by Villanueva.

Among the most prominent groups that backed his candidacy was the CHIRLA Action Fund, the nonprofit’s political arm. The group pumped more than $50,000 into Villanueva’s election campaign. CHIRLA members and volunteers knocked on doors and made calls in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County, focusing on Latinos, who historically have had low turnout rates.

Villanueva won an estimated 80% of the Latino vote, said Matt Barreto, a political science and Chicano studies professor at UCLA who runs the research and polling firm Latino Decisions.

“In four years when he runs again, he’ll have to account for his record,” Barreto said. “But he has approximately 3½ years to work on that. My sense is he’s moving in the right direction given what he campaigned on and what the communities that supported him believe.”

Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican consultant who studies Latino voting trends, argued that policy distinctions, including immigration issues, had little to do with Villanueva’s win. Immigration already was a highly charged national political issue, he said; plus, McDonnell didn’t campaign as aggressively as he should have because he didn’t view the election as competitive. People viewed the race as a Latino Democrat versus a white Republican.

Advocates frequently clashed with McDonnell, who had argued that not allowing county jail inmates to be handed over to immigration authorities would require more arrests to be made in public, sowing disruption in immigrant communities and distrust in law enforcement.

McDonnell eventually agreed to the final version of Senate Bill 54, the sanctuary state law, which allows ICE to use office space in one of the county’s jails. SB 54 prohibits local agencies from holding potentially deportable immigrants for ICE under most circumstances unless those detainees have been convicted of serious or violent felonies, or certain misdemeanors.

Immigrant rights leaders and Villanueva are in the middle of conversations about how to make it harder for ICE to access certain information. For instance, booking slips for decades have asked for place of birth. Villanueva said he’s reexamining whether it’s legal or necessary to do so.

“I think he has realized it’s not just his direct contact with ICE authorities but that all the information they collect can be utilized indirectly to detain an individual,” said Salas, of CHIRLA.

Another sticking point is the Sheriff’s Department’s website, where the release dates of those arrested are publicly available. ICE can easily mine this database to see when an immigrant is being released, wait for the inmate and take him or her into custody.

Villanueva is reviewing whether to maintain this information as public, which he acknowledged can tip off ICE agents. The flip side, he said, is that the database also keeps the public informed of when their loved ones, as well as potentially dangerous criminals, are being released into the community.

Madrid said it could become politically and legally problematic for Villanueva to remove that information from public view. “There’s a difference between not cooperating with ICE and obstructing their work,” he said.

But of equal significance to whichever policies the new sheriff adopts, Madrid said, is that Villanueva has an opportunity to convey community policing techniques in a way that McDonnell might not have been able to. In politics, he said, the messenger is often just as important as the message.

“People need to believe that there’s somebody like them who believes in them and shares their values,” Madrid said. “Even if there were no policy changes, the perception of the communities will be different.”