Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, who has been ordered by a Superior Court judge to release half the county’s jail population, recently defended his department’s policies regarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) transfers in front of the Southern California county's Board of Supervisors.
Barnes said state regulations are responsible for releasing dangerous criminals back onto the county's streets, which has taken place in Orange County since 2018, when it became required under a California law called the Truth Act.
“We enforce these laws equally without bias and without regard for one's immigration status. In carrying out our duties, we do not ask the immigration status of suspects or witnesses or those who call to report crimes,” Barnes said at an annual public discussion on Dec. 8 about how local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities work together.
“We do not perform immigration activities within the public as part of our law enforcement duties, when serving the public as a law enforcement capacity.”
Citizens concerned with the county’s immigration policies spoke out against Barnes at the annual meeting. Barnes claimed that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in 2019 transferred more criminals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) than any other county in California.
Before Barnes spoke, a member of the public, Ana Ramirez, wanted to know why the sheriff used “local taxpayer dollars to do the job of ICE.”
“The Orange County Sheriff's Department has been complicit in putting community members in danger by placing them in cages in immigration detention centers to contract COVID-19,” she said.
Barnes refuted the accusation. “We do not use any local taxpayer dollars for the enforcement of any ICE activities ... nor do we use public safety dollars within our jails in regards to ICE,” he said.
Barnes said that due to a state law called SB 54 that was passed in 2017, his department is prevented from working with ICE except under limited circumstances.
The law, known as the “California Values Act,” prohibits the use of state and local resources on behalf of federal immigration enforcement. Barnes said the law prevents the department from transferring many inmates to ICE, even if ICE is actively looking for the person.
But Barnes told the supervisors that while SB 54 prevents the department from working directly with ICE, it does allow the department some discretion with notifying ICE about serious offenders and crimes, which he has chosen to “fully exercise.”
“As with any law enforcement agency, when threats overlap and there is an obligation to collaborate in order to keep the community safe, we do that, and within the scope of the law,” Barnes said.
“Where the law allows, we do cooperate with ICE in a custody setting to address shared threats and prevent those who have committed violent crimes as designated within the Truth Act law from reentering our neighborhoods.”
Barnes said 492 inmates were transferred to ICE in 2019 upon completion of their time in local custody. But the sheriff also noted that he was restricted from notifying ICE of more than 1,000 other inmates with ICE detainers, forcing him to release them back onto the streets.
“Despite being arrested for criminal violations of the law, SB 54 and the Truth Act restricted OCSD from notifying ICE of the release of 1,015 inmates who had ICE detainers,” the sheriff said.
“Unfortunately, of the 1,015 inmates with ICE detainers who were released back into the community, 238 were re-arrested in 2019 in Orange County and returned to Orange County Jail for crimes including assault and battery, rape, robbery, and other serious offenses.”
Barnes said the return rate didn't account for individuals that might have been re-arrested for crimes that didn't return them to the Orange County jail.
Sgt. Dennis Breckner, the department’s public information officer, told The Epoch Times that there are hundreds of people who would not be victims today if not for SB 54.
“Since SB 54, we haven't transferred anybody, and of the ones we would have communicated with ICE on and likely transferred, those people re-offended,” Breckner said. “So there are victims to all of those 238 crimes that would not be victims had they been transferred to ICE.”
Barnes added that deputies on patrol in the community don't engage in immigration enforcement because they're focused on criminal violations of local and state law, not federal law, and hoped that moving forward into 2021, policymakers would work to remove barriers in communication among law enforcement agencies.
“The principle of open communication and shared threats is the best practice that must endure and should not be sacrificed to political gamesmanship,” he said.