A jailer at a Los Angeles County lockup walked into a cell on a recent Monday morning and removed an inmate wanted by federal immigration agents.
Dressed in a hunter green uniform with a gold sheriff’s star on his sleeve, Rodolfo Cabrera served the man with a Homeland Security Department form that requested he be transferred to agents upon his release because he was suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who promised during his 2018 campaign to end the “pipeline to deportation,” has removed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from the largest local jail system in the nation and limited the criteria that allow inmates to be transferred to federal custody for possible detention or deportation.
But some immigrants’ rights groups call Villanueva’s moves a “bait and switch,” because inmates are still being delivered to ICE through officers who are contracted by the federal agency.
The reality inside the jails is a complex tango that grants ICE a role while distancing it as a law enforcement partner, illuminating the political tightrope Villanueva is walking in balancing the demands of the immigrant rights groups that helped him get elected with his own concerns over public safety.
“I know some people say we shouldn’t transfer any inmates from jail to ICE. Others say we should have an ICE agent in practically every jail cell. As L.A. County Sheriff, my priority is to ensure everyone’s public safety and to uphold the law,” Villanueva said in a statement. “We are protecting everyone, including undocumented persons, by not letting those violent criminals back into the community where they pose a threat.”
Villanueva noted that ICE transfers declined 47% from January through April compared with the same period last year.
Before Villanueva took office, ICE agents were allowed to use an office inside the Inmate Reception Center — the downtown lockup that processes the majority of people booked in and out of the Los Angeles County jail system. The agents had access at all hours and could freely approach inmates to interview them, said Capt. Brendan Corbett, who supervises the facility.
The sheriff quickly trimmed the list of qualifying crimes that would allow an inmate to be transferred to ICE, removing 50 misdemeanors and making it so only those convicted of misdemeanors within the past three years (down from five) could be transferred.
He also canceled the department’s participation in a grant program that required sending federal officials a database of inmates’ places of birth, which he said had been used to identify people who might be in the country illegally.
The inmate who was taken out of a cell recently by a Sheriff’s Department custody assistant ultimately was not handed over to federal agents that day. During processing, jail officials noticed that a court had ordered he be sent to a rehabilitation facility upon his release.
But the man’s experience illustrates how the Sheriff’s Department interacts with immigration officials.
Like all inmates, he was fingerprinted as he was booked into the jail. The prints were sent to a federal database, which allowed ICE to identify him as potentially being in the country illegally.
ICE sent a form known as a “detainer” to the Sheriff’s Department, asking that the man be transferred upon his release. A Sheriff’s Department custody assistant combed through the inmate’s file to see if his criminal history was serious enough to qualify him for transfer. (It was.)
If an inmate is OKd for transfer, a custody assistant notifies ICE once the inmate is being released. The department doesn’t contact ICE ahead of a release date, nor does it detain inmates for ICE beyond the release time, according to Sheriff’s Department officials. The release process can take hours.
ICE then sends third-party transport officers to a secure area of the Inmate Reception Center to pick up the inmate. Transfers to ICE contractors, who are not sworn peace officers, can also happen in the secure areas of Sheriff’s Department stations and county courthouses.
Deputies escort inmates to be handcuffed by the ICE contractors. If the transport officers do not show up or are late, the inmate may be released without coming into contact with immigration officials.
The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission estimates the department has spent $1.4 million per year on the custody assistants who screen requests from ICE full time.
I am especially concerned because I have heard from community members who mistakenly believed that ... transfers to ICE custody were no longer taking place.
But immigrants’ rights advocates say the transfers are not legally necessary and that it’s unjust to arrest and deport people for civil immigration matters after they’ve already served time for their criminal convictions.
California’s “sanctuary state” law, also known as Senate Bill 54, bars local law enforcement agencies from using public money to play a direct role in immigration enforcement and prohibits local police from transferring people to immigration authorities except in certain cases, including when people have been convicted of select crimes.
The law says inmates can only be handed to ICE for civil immigration matters if they’ve been convicted of certain violent felonies and misdemeanors such as stalking and child neglect. Among the 50 misdemeanors Villanueva removed from the list were looting and forging a driver’s license.
Some agencies, including the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, do not honor immigration detainers or allow ICE to take custody of inmates, no matter the inmate’s past convictions.
Several immigrant rights advocates said Villanueva seemed to have advertised an end to ICE in the jails while quietly allowing people to be taken away for possible deportation.
“It’s having the effect of creating a false sense of security for people to think that the Sheriff’s Department has nothing to do with ICE, when in fact they’re basically continuing business as usual,” said Andrés Kwon, a lawyer at the ACLU of Southern California who focuses on immigration issues.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who serves a heavily Latino district that covers eastern parts of Los Angeles County, said there’s a misconception that Villanueva’s policies have resulted in an end to ICE’s role in the jails.
“I am especially concerned because I have heard from community members who mistakenly believed that the removal of ICE agents from the jails meant that transfers to ICE custody were no longer taking place,” Solis said in a statement.
Last month, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission issued recommendations urging Villanueva to further separate his department from ICE by barring local jailers from honoring transfer requests and handing inmates to ICE contractors.
That’s also the ultimate goal of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, whose political arm endorsed Villanueva and contributed around $40,000 to support his candidacy.
For now, the group said, Villanueva’s removal of ICE agents is a powerful improvement despite the ongoing transfers.
“This is a better outcome so far than what we had under prior sheriffs,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of CHIRLA. “Is there more to be done? Absolutely.”
Villanueva’s anti-ICE message and status as a Democrat were attractive to many voters, elevating him as the progressive alternative to former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who supported ICE’s presence in county lockups.
Still, Villanueva didn’t advocate for an end to all coordination with federal immigration agents during his campaign.
“We will march [inmates] out ourselves to a secure courtyard and give them to ICE outside of the view of the other inmates,” Villanueva said at an election forum in September.
Two months later, he said that some of the inmates eligible for transfer to ICE could have past convictions of child rape or sexual assault.
“I cannot release them into the public knowing that they’re eligible for deportation,” Villanueva said.
Thomas Giles, acting field office director for ICE enforcement and removal operations in Los Angeles, said stripping the agency of the ability to detain certain inmates jeopardized public safety. He said in recent months, the Sheriff’s Department released inmates subject to immigration detainers who had been convicted of crimes including multiple DUIs, carrying a loaded firearm and vehicular manslaughter without notifying ICE.
“We’re going into these communities to try to locate and apprehend these people. So that puts not only my officers at risk, but it also puts members of the community at risk. We’d much prefer to have this done inside a secure environment, such as a county or local jail,” Giles said.
Starting Feb. 1, when Villanueva removed the ICE agents, through the end of April, there were 120 transfers — compared with 236 during the same span last year, Sheriff’s Department statistics show. Misdemeanors accounted for about 16% of the transfers during that period this year, down from 22% last year.
Meanwhile, ICE has issued roughly the same number of detainers as it has in the past, according to the Sheriff’s Department data.
The county Office of Inspector General says the main difference under Villanueva is in the personnel handling the transfers.
“The change — what we can see on its face — is that now department personnel is more involved in facilitating the transfers. [Before,] ICE was in the jails facilitating transfers,” deputy inspector general Shadi Kardan told the Board of Supervisors during a public meeting in March.
Pablo Alvarado, co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which advocates for immigrants’ rights, said he and his staff would be monitoring the number of people transferred to ICE as the most important metric in evaluating Villanueva’s policies.
“He was elected in large part because he promised to kick ICE out of the jail and to defend immigrants. That was his promise, and that was the most pronounced difference between him and McDonnell,” Alvarado said. “If he doesn’t want to live up to his word, then I imagine that voters will find a reformer that will.”