A TRUTH Forum in Merced County, California

By Tanya Golash-Boza

Immigration law enforcement is the purview of the federal government. Thus, even though some states would like to welcome more immigrants and others would like to close their state borders, states do not have the authority to control the entry of foreigners into this country.

Nevertheless, states, counties, and cities do play a significant role in deportations because the vast majority of people deported from the United States are first arrested by a police officer and then handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Here is one example of police involvement in deportations. In 2012, a police officer pulled over a driver in Merced County, California. During that stop, the officer suspected the driver had illegal drugs in his car. He thus arrested the driver, who is a single father of two teenage girls, and took him into custody. The driver was charged with possession of an illegal substance, convicted, and sentenced to 90 days in the Merced County Jail. Instead of being released at the end of his sentence, the Sheriff detained him so that ICE could interview him. ICE determined he was living in the United States without authorization and arrested him upon his release from local custody. ICE detained him for an additional three months before deporting him to Mexico, leaving the two girls orphaned.

California has recently passed a law called the TRUST Act that would prevent this kind of cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities. Merced County Jail held the man beyond the end of his sentence so that ICE agents could interview him. Under the TRUST Act, the Sheriff is no longer permitted to hold people once their sentence ends unless they have been convicted of a serious offense.

ICE thus should not be able to detain and deport people with minor charges and convictions in California. Nevertheless, ICE has been able to get around the TRUST Act because of mandatory information sharing with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). When a person is taken into local custody, the Sheriff runs their fingerprints through an FBI database to find out if they have a warrant for their arrest in another state. The FBI then shares this information with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). ICE is part of DHS and thus receives the information. ICE runs the fingerprints through their database to determine if the person is in the country legally. If ICE suspects they are not, ICE issues a detainer.

A detainer is a request that the Sheriff lets ICE know when they are going to release a person from local custody. Under the TRUST Act, the Sheriff may not provide this information unless it is made publicly available. In Merced, release dates of inmates are made publicly available, thereby skirting around this regulation.

Thus, ICE agents can look at the Merced County Sheriff Office public website to find out when a person they would like to take into custody will be released. They then show up outside the jail and arrest the person.

California has another law, called the TRUTH Act, which is designed to hold Sheriffs accountable. The TRUTH Act requires the Sheriff to hold at least one public community forum and to receive and consider public comment if the Sheriff has provided ICE access to any detained person.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been working with community members in California to ensure that these TRUTH Forums happen. The ACLU submitted a request for public records to the Merced County Sheriff’s Office. This request revealed that ICE had taken 66 people into custody after their release from Merced County jail.

Local ACLU organizers formed a coalition called ICE Out of Merced. I had been participating in an affiliated organization called the Valley Watch Network, and thus heard about the coalition and decided to get involved. The coalition includes local activists, students, faith leaders, community members, and organizers from the ACLU.

The first task of ICE Out of Merced was to ensure the TRUTH Forum would take place. The County Board of Supervisors is responsible for holding the TRUTH Forum. We reached out to members of the Board and took individual meetings with two of them. They agreed they would talk to other members about the TRUTH Forum.

We then went to speak at the Board of Supervisors meeting during the public comment period and asked them to meet with us to schedule the Forum at a convenient time. They decided to schedule the meeting for November 20, 2018 at 1:30pm, during their regularly scheduled meeting time. This timing was not ideal as it was during the day and during Thanksgiving week, making it difficult for community members to attend.

The Board of Supervisors also did not share any information about the format of the Forum.  This made it difficult to prepare. We did not know if we would have the opportunity to ask the Sheriff or the Board of Supervisors questions. We thus decided to prepare both questions and commentary. We also publicized the Forum widely on social media.

On the day of the Forum, we were pleased to see that the room was full.

The Sheriff held the floor first. He presented – with his back to the community – for six and a half minutes. Then, he left. This was disappointing because we wanted to engage with the Sheriff and ask him specific questions related to his involvement with ICE.

The Board of Supervisors thus had to listen to comments and questions for the next hour from community members, most of which were directed at the Sheriff.

Eighteen community members spoke in response to the Sheriff’s presentation while the Board listened. They did not respond directly to any of the comments. At the end of the public comment period, they requested a short break.

After the break, several of the members of the Board of Supervisors spoke in response to what they had heard. When the Forum was over, four of the five members of the Board of Supervisors came down off of their platform and engaged with the community. This was significant, as we don’t usually see this kind of engagement from our local elected officials.

They agreed they would work with us to set up a meeting to discuss ICE involvement with the Sheriff.

The next step for the ICE Out of Merced Coalition is to arrange a meeting with the Sheriff and figure out the next steps to ensure that the Sheriff is held accountable and that all members of our community feel safe.

There are two steps the Sheriff could take to make immigrants safer in Merced County: 1) Stop putting photos of people in his custody on the website. This would make it more difficult for ICE to arrest people after they are released as they would not be able to make a positive identification in most cases; and 2) Stop asking detainees about their immigration status and place of birth. This would make it more difficult for ICE to identify undocumented migrants in the FBI database.

We also plan to continue working with the Board of Supervisors to plan the next TRUTH Forum and make it more of an actual forum, which we believe should involve an exchange of ideas as opposed to one-way communication.


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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants Rights Activism

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