The work of handing over arrestees to immigration authorities under the controversial Secure Communities, or S-Comm, program is largely done by local county sheriffs. And, in terms of sheer numbers, no county has cooperated more fully than Los Angeles, where undocumented immigrants, authorized residents, and even U.S.-born citizens have been turned over for deportation. In fact, nearly 11 percent of all immigration detainers under S-Comm have originated in Los Angeles County—with Sheriff Lee Baca’s blessing.
Last December the L.A. County sheriff said that his office would no longer turn over low-level offenders to immigration authorities under the program due to a directive from California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Still, Baca continues to cooperate with S-Comm in this way.
According to ICE figures L.A. county has turned over 30,093 people to the agency for deportation. That tops the 22,000 people that Maricopa County’s Joe Arpaio—the nation’s most infamous anti-immigrant sheriff—has relinquished to ICE.
Yet Baca’s public information officer, Steve Whitmore, insists that the sheriff is an “aggressive reformer of S-Comm” and he points to a 2011 op-ed titled “Let Us Deport the Bad Guys,” in which Baca provided two examples of men who had been identified under S-Comm who were convicted of crimes; one being for murder. What Baca left out, however, was that the majority of people who are held in his jails on ICE detainers have not necessarily been convicted of violent crimes.
The federal government groups people removed under S-Comm into several categories. Among them, L1 includes those convicted of what ICE calls aggravated felonies; L2 refers to people who have been convicted of a felony or at least three misdemeanors; and L3 includes people sentenced to under a year, usually for misdemeanors such as shoplifting. Government data reveal that L.A. County has turned over 12,126 L2 and L3 category suspects under S-Comm, compared to 11,455 L1 suspects. That means that those immigrants who have committed more trivial offenses are more frequently targeted under the program.
To complicate matters, L2 immigrants also include those convicted of non-violent offenses, such as failing to appear in court after receiving a traffic ticket for driving without a license. And even L1 category immigrants—those defined as having committed “aggravated felonies”—include non-violent offenders. The L1 category can group someone who evades taxes alongside someone convicted of a very serious crime such as the murder or rape of a child.
When questioned about the number of people Baca has turned over the ICE, Whitmore responds that the federal government’s figures aren’t accurate. When asked to clarify why he believes ICE’s data are flawed, he says, “The [sheriff’s] department doesn’t turn people over who are low level offenders.”
Jessica Karp, staff attorney for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), has a different take. “For Sheriff Baca, any person arrested is automatically a bad guy,” she says. ”Baca has been a good politician, putting on a good face by saying he supports comprehensive immigration reform and saying he respects DREAMers. But the sheriff’s actual policies don’t reflect what he says.”
Patrisse Cullors, lead organizer for The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, goes outside of Baca’s Twin Towers jail once a week to speak with people whose family members are waiting to visit those being held inside. Although she wholly rejects the idea that people who have been criminalized in any way should necessarily be deported, she really takes issue with Baca’s statement about so-called bad guys. “In talking to families, we’re not coming across families whose loved ones are accused of violent crimes,” she says. “All types of folks are being held [on detainers] for non-violent offenses, like drug use or possession.”
Holding people comes at great cost to taxpayers. According to a conservative estimate made by New York-based research organization Justice Strategies, housing people under ICE detainers costs Los Angeles County taxpayers more than $26 million per year. Local jurisdictions pick up the tab for housing people under S-Comm until immigration authorities take the person in question into custody. And although detainers are issued for 48 weekday hours, they often drag on for weeks; the average hold time in Los Angeles County, according to Justice Strategies, is more than 20 days. Justice Strategies director Judy Greene says Los Angeles County’s high cost to cooperate with S-Comm doesn’t surprise her. “There’s a moral panic around immigrants,” she says. That public fixation, one in which Greene says that someone’s “[immigrant] status itself becomes the crime,” is what translates into increased enforcement—with a hefty cost to taxpayers.
Organizer Cullors, who works with people most affected by criminalization, has serious concerns about the legality of the sheriff department’s practices. She says she’s met people who explain that their undocumented family members are being denied basic due process. NDLON, along with several other organizations, has filed a suit against Sheriff Baca and the County of Los Angeles on behalf of a plaintiff who, like thousands of others, was denied the ability to post bail after arrest because of an ICE detainer. The suit, filed nearly a year ago, challenges S-Comm’s constitutionality.
The California legislature, meanwhile, has approved a bill called the Trust Act, which limit local jurisdictions from cooperating on with ICE detainers, except in cases that involve violent act. That bill is now waiting for Governor Jerry Brown’s approval.