The Orange County Sheriff’s Department will end its more than decade-long agreement with federal immigration officials to house some detainees in the county jail system, a move that further scales back its relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On Wednesday, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said the action was taken to free up space for better treatment of mentally ill inmates. He said the county had seen a 40% increase in mental health cases in its jails since 2015.
The ICE contract ends in 2020, and Barnes said his department had informed the federal agency that it would not be renewed. As a result, ICE detainees will no longer be housed at Sheriff’s Department jails starting Aug. 1. Barnes said it’s likely that those federal immigration detainees would be moved to facilities out of state.
In response, ICE officials suggested that the county’s action would impose new hardships on detainees and their families.
“Now, instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE will have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away, reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination,” said ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley in a written statement.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Department housed 671 ICE detainees in its jails.
It’s unclear exactly where the detainees will be moved to, but ICE’s detention options in California have become increasingly limited, according to previous statements by agents.
Barnes emphasized that he would continue to work with ICE agents “within the confines of SB 54 to ensure they are alerted to release of serious and violent offenders within our custody who have ICE detainers.” He was referring to Senate Bill 54, the so-called sanctuary state law, which limits the degree to which California law enforcement agencies may cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
In a video posted on the Sheriff’s Department’s Twitter account, Barnes insisted that his decision wasn’t political.
“I want to make clear that the decision to end the ICE agreement is not a result of the recent political rhetoric surrounding immigration,” Barnes said.
Until now, Orange County has been among the few large California counties to continue to work with ICE. Orange County long stood as an outlier in California, a state that has become increasingly friendly to immigrants — including those who are in the country without legal status.
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 eventually was 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.
Since then, changing demographics — growing Latino and Asian populations — have placed whites in the county’s minority, prompting a major political shift. In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Orange County since the Great Depression.
When state legislators drafted Senate Bill 54, former Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens vehemently spoke out in opposition.
Immigrant rights groups applauded the Sheriff’s Department decision to end its contract with ICE but said it was wrong for local and federal officials to suggest that all of the detainees will have to be transferred to other facilities. Some are demanding that ICE release as many of the detainees as possible.
“The sheriff and ICE have a responsibility to ensure a just termination of the agreement,” said Christina Fialho, an attorney and co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. “A just termination would ensure access to counsel and the release of currently detained individuals so that they can continue their cases on the outside through the help of community-based alternatives to detention.”
For years, Fialho’s group advocated for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to end its agreement with ICE, ultimately taking its fight to the state Capitol, where they co-sponsored a bill that went into effect in January 2018. Senate Bill 29 prevents California municipalities from entering into contracts with the federal government for the purpose of immigration detention.
“Once the county terminates its agreement with ICE, never again will Orange County be party to such a misguided and harmful agreement,” Fialho said.
Wednesday’s announcement is just the latest action that the Sheriff’s Department has taken to distance itself from ICE.
Orange County’s policy shift reflects a larger trend in local communities to loosen ties with federal immigration officials, “realizing there are better uses for their resources and their jails than serving as a housing center for ICE,” said Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at UC Irvine.
Only one other county in California — Yuba County — contracts with ICE for long-term adult immigration detention. Immigrant rights advocates are pressuring Yuba County to end that contract, Fialho said.
Orange County’s decision “reflects a diminished strength of the anti-immigrant sentiment among leaders in Orange County,” DeSipio said.
Senate Bill 54, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed after the Legislature passed it in 2017, prohibits state and local police agencies from notifying federal officials in many cases when immigrants in their custody who may potentially be subject to deportation are about to be released.
Wednesday’s decision dates to January 2018, when — as SB 54 took effect — the Sheriff’s Department took a step back and quit its participation in a federal-local immigration program known as 287(g), which had allowed Orange County’s deputies to act as immigration agents in its jails.
The program was emblematic of the county’s historical opposition to illegal immigration and its cozy relationship with ICE. The 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.
This year, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced plans to put tighter limits on his department’s ties with ICE.
He said he was considering 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.
Immigrant rights groups that supported Villanueva’s campaign have been advising him on policy and are closely watching his next moves.
But some immigrant rights supporters have criticized Villanueva, accusing him of breaking campaign promises he made to separate his department from ICE.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sent an open letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors protesting the new sheriff’s policies regarding the turning over of people without legal status to ICE.
“The policies that Sheriff Villanueva has adopted so far, however, are practically business as usual and will have minimal impact,” the letter stated. “In particular, replacing ICE agents with ICE contractors to handle the arrest and transfer of individuals to ICE is a difference that is cosmetic only — with the same overall result.”
Villanueva ran for office vowing not to work with ICE.