Outside Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office transferred eight people to federal immigration agents last year for deportation or some other kind of immigration enforcement, according to information presented at a county Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. This was the lowest number of people transferred from county jail to ICE since 2014, when the sheriff’s office began collecting data.

The sheriff hasn’t transferred a single person to ICE so far in 2021.

“Hopefully that’s what it will be at the end of the year,” said Undersheriff Richard Lucia at the meeting. However, he added, Sheriff Gregory Ahern is still choosing to cooperate with ICE in specific cases where his department is allowed to under state law.

Several supervisors, immigration advocates, and attorneys with the county public defender’s office said the sheriff’s ongoing collaboration with ICE is unacceptable, even with the reduction in the number of transfers.

“Cooperating with ICE means subjecting [people] to the racism, inequities, and mistreatment in the immigration, deportation, and detention system,” said Avantika Shastri, an immigration attorney with the public defender’s office. Shastri and others cited reports showing high COVID-19 infection rates and low-quality healthcare in ICE detention centers.

Opponents of the sheriff’s office working with ICE said the declining number of transfers is mainly due to the pandemic, not a change of policy by Sheriff Ahern. They fear that as the pandemic recedes, ICE transfers will rise again. The number of people detained in federal immigration detention centers fell during the pandemic to 13,000 in February 2021 from a high of 55,000 in August 2019. The Biden administration has been slowly increasing the number of detainees again, which currently stands at 22,000 people.

Undersheriff Lucia agreed. “I think the pandemic of course has an influence on the numbers,” he said. “Fewer people were taken into custody, have been held in custody, during the pandemic. I know that ICE has decided to reduce the number of their inmates in custody throughout the county.”

Lucia added that the decline in transfers is also due to sheriff’s deputies in the jail being better trained on the laws restricting when and why they can cooperate with ICE.

ICE contacted the sheriff’s office 322 times in 2020 asking to be notified when a person held in Santa Rita Jail was scheduled for release. Sheriff’s staff responded in 8 cases, allowing ICE into the jail to arrest someone who was about to be let go. Credit: Courtesy Alameda County Sheriff's Office

Cooperation between the sheriff and ICE has been the subject of intense controversy for years. Tension between immigrant communities and their allies and the sheriff’s office and its supporters intensified in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, who ran on an anti-immigrant platform.

In 2017, one year into the Trump administration, a high of 386 people were handed over to immigration agents for deportation by the sheriff’s office. Nearly all of these people were incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail and the Glenn Dyer Jail in Oakland, which closed in 2019. ICE transfers started falling in 2018, the year that Senate Bill 54, also known as the California Values Act, went into effect. 

Part of a suite of “sanctuary” laws passed by state lawmakers, SB 54 limited state and local law enforcement’s ability to cooperate and communicate with ICE. Broadly speaking, SB 54 bans police and sheriff’s deputies from working with immigration agents. Sheriff’s deputies in the jail, where almost every person arrested in Alameda County is held, are prohibited from detaining a person for extra time just so that immigration agents can arrest them. They’re also not allowed to tell immigration agents when a person will be released from jail, except in cases where the person has been convicted of a specific range of felonies or misdemeanor crimes and a few other exceptions.

Most other Bay Area counties have gone above and beyond SB 54 and chosen not to cooperate in any circumstances with ICE.

According to Lena Graber, a senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, Sonoma, Santa Clara, and Napa counties all transferred zero people to ICE in 2020. The San Francisco and Santa Clara County sheriffs both have policies of not cooperating with immigration agents for transfers.

Supervisor Nate Miley indicated he’s not ready to take action to stop Alameda County’s sheriff from cooperating with ICE.

“Doesn’t it make sense, if someone’s a felon, a sex offender, [has committed] a serious crime…that law enforcement would cooeprate with one another?” Miley asked the public defender’s immigration attorneys at Tuesday’s meeting. “To me, that seems idiotic not to have cooperation when it comes to a serious felony.”

Raha Jorjani, an immigration defense attorney in the public defender’s office, responded that all people convicted of a violent felony, including undocumented immigrants, serve a sentence, which often includes time in state prison or county jail. When they’re released, said Jorjani, it’s because the criminal legal system has determined they are safe to be allowed back into the community. Handing these individuals over to ICE for deportation, she said, amounts to a kind of double punishment that also harms families and communities. She also noted that immigration offenses are civil matters, not criminal violations.

Lucia said Sheriff Ahern feels public safety is better served in some cases by cooperating with ICE and handing undocumented people over for deportation.

But Somdeng Danny Thongsy said his experience shows that the policy is flawed. Thongsy, who called into the meeting, said his family immigrated from Laos during the United States’ secret war there, settling in an impoverished Stockton neighborhood. At age 17, his brother was killed and he experienced other trauma. After that, Thongsy said his life spiraled and he was later convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. He worked to turn his life around behind bars and was paroled in 2016 but handed over to ICE upon his release. He was able to defend himself against removal, but many others are deported.

Danny Thongsy was taken into custody by ICE after he was paroled in 2016. Credit: Screenshot via Zoom

“Other counties have already stopped this cruel practice,” he said of the sheriff’s ongoing work with ICE. “I hope Alameda County will stand up and do the same.

Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors hearing was the county’s annual TRUTH Act forum. In effect since January 2017, the Truth Act is a state law that bolsters protections for immigrants who are detained by law enforcement and requires local agencies to be more transparent about when and how they cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

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.