Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail holds roughly 2000 detainees on any given day and is one of the largest jails in the country. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office continues to allow ICE agents into Santa Rita Jail to arrest undocumented immigrants on civil immigration charges, according to information presented Tuesday at a county Board of Supervisors meeting. Assistant Sheriff Tom Madigan defended the practice and said all of the ICE arrests at county jails in 2019—which were fewer than in other recent years—involved people convicted of violent and “heinous” crimes.

But immigration advocates said the sheriff’s office isn’t required to cooperate with ICE, that it’s one of the last law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area to do so, and that deportations break up families and unfairly punish people who have already served a sentence in prison or jail for a criminal conviction.

Tuesday’s hearing about ICE activities at the jail was mandatory under AB 2792, a bill written by Oakland Assemblymember Rob Bonta. That bill, known as the TRUTH Act, requires law enforcement agencies to publicly disclose every year how many people they handed over to immigration agents for deportation.

Madigan told the supervisors that in 2019, the sheriff’s office was contacted 392 times by ICE regarding jail detainees. The sheriff’s office gave ICE advance notice of the release dates and times for 44 people who were arrested on jail property immediately following their release. He defended the decision to cooperate with ICE. 

“Those 44 occasions, the individual had to be convicted of a certain crime,” said Madigan. “I can tell you they’re very serious crimes: lewd and lascivious acts on children, rape, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon with a firearm, false imprisonment, kidnapping.”

Under state law, local law enforcement agencies, including the Alameda County Sheriff, are prohibited from communicating or cooperating with ICE to carry out enforcement of immigration laws, with some exceptions. Those include situations where a person has been convicted of certain serious felony and misdemeanor crimes, not all of which are violent, or when they’ve been arrested on specific felony charges and a judge has found probable cause that they should stand trial.

Credit: Alameda County Sheriff's Office

Several members of the Board of Supervisors objected to the sheriff’s ongoing cooperation with ICE.

“I wouldn’t disagree that they’re probably heinous crimes,” said Supervisor Wilma Chan, “but we don’t feel like we should do the work for ICE, even in these exceptions.”

“It’s the sheriff’s discretion and he chooses in those limited situations to cooperate,” Madigan said in response to Chan.

Latinos accounted for 78% of the people held in Alameda County jail who ICE sought information about in 2019. Asians were the next largest group at 14%, with Black people accounting for 2% and whites less than 1%.

2019 saw the lowest number of people arrested by ICE at Alameda County jails over the past seven years. In 2014, 120 people were handed over to immigration agents by the sheriff. This increased to a high of 386 in 2017. Asked why, Madigan said “that’s when I think President Trump reimplemented Secure Communities, so you see a higher number,” referring to the push by the Trump administration to increase deportations the year after the 2016 election.

So far in 2020, ICE has contacted the sheriff’s staff about 267 people held in Santa Rita Jail, and the sheriff has responded to help ICE arrest eight people on immigration charges.

Assistant Sheriff Tom Madigan. Credit: Courtesy of Alameda County

“I understand your positions,” Madigan told the supervisors, “but the sheriff has made a decision that in limited circumstances where people have committed some pretty violent and heinous crimes, he intends to cooperate with immigration.”

Avantika Shastri, an immigration attorney with the county public defender’s office, strongly disagreed with Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s decision to cooperate with immigration agents. “No law enforcement agency is required to cooperate with immigration enforcement,” said Shastri. “Those that cooperate are voluntarily choosing to do so.”

Shastri said the public defender’s office identified one situation this past year in which the sheriff helped ICE arrest a person in violation of SB 54, also known as the Values Act, the state law that generally prohibits law enforcement agencies in California from cooperating with federal immigration agents. The person, said Shastri, had completed a jail sentence for a misdemeanor probation violation and was protected under that law.

“The law required that he be released to his family, but instead the sheriff’s office reported him to ICE,” said Shastri. The man was incarcerated in an ICE detention center in Louisiana where he was exposed to COVID-19, became sick, and was deported in September.

Shastri alleged that the sheriff has violated the Values Act three times since 2018. When asked about the alleged violations during yesterday’s meeting, Assistant Sheriff Madigan said he would not respond to “pending litigation.”

Lena Graber, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told the supervisors during the forum that the sheriff’s office is “the primary driver of immigration enforcement” in Alameda County and that ICE agents rarely go out into the community on their own to make an arrest. Graber presented ICE data showing that the majority of local arrests made by immigration agents each year are at Santa Rita Jail. She described the process of a typical immigration arrest from start to finish:

“Immigration enforcement most commonly looks like this: Police stop a person, and when they arrest that person and book that person their fingerprints are sent to ICE to be automatically checked against federal immigration databases. Everyone, everywhere in the country, is automatically subjected to an immigration check if they’re arrested, no matter the reason for the arrest, or if it was pretextual. Based on that immigration check, ICE agents send a detainer request to the sheriff’s department and then ACSO transfers this person to ICE custody instead of releasing them.”

Graber called Alameda County an “outlier” among Bay Area counties in the degree it cooperates with ICE. Supervisors in Marin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Joaquin, Humboldt, and Contra Costa counties have all voted to prohibit the practice of handing people at their jails over to ICE, she said. 

Toward the end of the forum, several supervisors asked how they might further restrict the sheriff’s office from cooperating with ICE.

Chan suggested the board could pass a resolution banning the sheriff from spending any money on activities that involve coordination with ICE. The supervisors also discussed imposing stricter oversight measures for the sheriff’s office. Supervisor Nate Miley said he wants the board to hold a hearing on Assembly Bill 1185, which authorizes county boards of supervisors to set up civilian sheriff oversight boards. He also asked staff to examine what other counties are doing to prevent their sheriffs from working with immigration agents.

“If we can get a sense of what the 58 counties are doing relative to that, we can have a menu of options for what we can impose on the sheriff’s department relative to cooperation with ICE,” Miley said.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.