SLO County law enforcement: ‘Nothing’s changed’ despite Trump’s immigration orders

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers with an arrestee during an early morning raid in New York in 2015.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers with an arrestee during an early morning raid in New York in 2015. Associated Press file

As President Donald Trump’s administration beefs up immigration enforcement and looks to local law enforcement agencies for help, San Luis Obispo County officials say they’re in the business of protecting residents, not deporting them.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a memorandum Tuesday outlining the Trump administration’s plan to crack down on immigrants in the country illegally. The plan gives immigration officers authority to deport anyone they see as a public safety risk — with priority to those charged or convicted of a crime, have committed acts that could lead to charges, engaged in fraud against the government or abused any public benefits program.

The department “no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” according to the memorandum. To enforce the measures, Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to hire 10,000 federal officers and agents.

The directive notes that 32 local law enforcement agencies in 16 states participate in a program that allows them to act as immigration officers and that the Department of Homeland Security is looking to expand that. Only one California agency, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, is among the participants.

In San Luis Obispo County, local law enforcement agencies say they aren’t interested. And California law backs them up, giving local agencies discretion in detaining people with immigration violations. State law also makes it illegal for state and local law enforcement to detain anyone solely for immigration purposes.

“I think there’s value in having the feds only take the immigration issue,” San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said. “I want local people to trust the local law enforcement.”

Fear and opposition

California is home to more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, an estimated 9,000 of whom live in San Luis Obispo County, according to 2013 data collected by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Undocumented immigrants play a significant role in the state’s workforce — making up about 9 percent of all workers in California, second only to Nevada’s 10 percent, according to the institute’s data.

The new directive, in addition to reports of recent ICE raids and Trump’s disparaging remarks about immigrants, have created fear in immigrant communities throughout the state, including in San Luis Obispo County.

Local attorneys Erica and Hernaldo Baltodano said they’ve been helping provide area immigrants with information about their rights. Hernaldo Baltodano helped give a presentation at Pacheco Elementary School in San Luis Obispo earlier this month that drew hundreds of concerned parents, he said.

“People are staying home,” he said. “They’re not answering their doors. They’re living in complete fear.”

The fear caused by the Trump administration’s directives will make it tougher for immigrants being exploited or abused to seek help, Baltodano said.

People are staying home. They’re not answering their doors. They’re living in complete fear.

Hernaldo Baltodano, an attorney in San Luis Obispo County

“It takes courage to go see a lawyer and actually do something,” he said. “I can only imagine how difficult it is if you’re living in the shadows and have no status.”

Kevin Gregg, an immigration attorney in Paso Robles, said he’s experienced an uptick in calls from individuals asking deportation-related questions.

During the past week alone, Gregg said he’s received about 50 calls from people trying to make plans for children with citizenship if their parents get deported — a topic he’s never gotten inquiries about in the past five years.

Despite the Trump administration directive, the California TRUST Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2013, gives local law enforcement officers discretion when detaining people for potential immigration law violations.

Under the TRUST Act, individuals can only be detained for immigration reasons if they’ve been convicted of serious or violent felonies.

“Nothing in the (federal) directives changes anything about California law,” Gregg said.

Enforcement efforts

Federal manpower and support for immigration law enforcement are sparse on the Central Coast.

Tess Whittlesey, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, said Thursday that the congressman met with ICE officials about two weeks ago and was told the agency doesn’t have the resources — staff and space for detainment — to conduct mass raids or other large-scale enforcement operations on the Central Coast.

Lori Haley, an ICE spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the agency isn’t granting interviews to the news media and declined to comment on the memorandum.

In an emailed statement, Haley said ICE is “committed to using its unique enforcement authorities and available resources and tools to promote national security, uphold public safety and preserve the integrity of our immigration system.”

The agency will continue to seek collaboration with law enforcement agencies to help ensure that individuals who may pose a threat to our communities are not released onto the street to potentially reoffend and harm our citizens.

Lori Haley, an ICE spokeswoman

“The agency will continue to seek collaboration with law enforcement agencies to help ensure that individuals who may pose a threat to our communities are not released onto the street to potentially reoffend and harm our citizens,” Haley wrote.

Parkinson said the Homeland Security directives have virtually no effect on the Sheriff’s Office or other local law enforcement agencies, in part because state law doesn’t allow them to do frontline immigration enforcement.

Moreover, he said, enforcing immigration laws would run counter to the department’s “community policing” efforts. He said his deputies want all residents to feel free to report crimes and to share information that can help in investigations.

“The people in fear are not only the ones here illegally,” Parkinson said. “You have people that maybe are here legally but are already leery of law enforcement because of (cartel and drug) issues in Mexico, or they may be legal but their brother is not. It naturally makes people fear.”

Requesting detainers

ICE and local officials have sometimes had a tense relationship when it comes to undocumented immigrants and crime, though it’s improving, Parkinson said.

In August 2015, the Sheriff’s Office came under fire for releasing from custody a Mexican national arrested on suspicion of attacking a 2-year-old girl. The department was following state law when it released Francisco Javier Chavez after he posted bail, although ICE had issued a detainer request.

The jail had followed its normal procedure: When someone is booked, their fingerprints are sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, which checks immigration status. ICE had been alerted to Chavez’s impending release, but agents didn’t arrive at the jail in time to take him into custody.

Chavez, who grew up in Paso Robles and attended Paso Robles High School, is assumed to have fled to Mexico. An outstanding warrant remains for his arrest.

In his case, Chavez would have been eligible for a bail enhancement, which might have kept him in custody long enough to go before a judge. Following a grand jury investigation, all San Luis Obispo County law enforcement have now been trained on how to request additional bail when the alleged crime merits it.

The new ICE memo issued last week calls for publishing a weekly report that names all local policing agencies that release undocumented immigrants when there is an outstanding immigration request.

Despite incidents such as the Chavez case, undocumented immigrants are underrepresented in California’s prisons compared with their representation in the overall population, according to a 2008 Public Policy Institute of California study.

Parkinson said the number of undocumented people being arrested for violent crimes in San Luis Obispo County is “pretty low.”

On Thursday, for example, County Jail was at capacity with about 600 inmates, three of whom are known to be undocumented.

Asked what he wanted residents — documented or not — to know about the local implementation of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement priorities, Parkinson said nothing has changed.

“The president can certainly ask for assistance in the matter, but I have to agree to it,” he said.

Enforcement priorities

Local police departments also want no part in the ramped-up immigration enforcement.

Lt. Ty Lewis of the Paso Robles Police Department said his agency has no plans to begin tackling illegal immigration.

“We’re not immigration officers,” Lewis said. “We’re not trained in immigration enforcement.”

“Building trust” among residents is especially important to the department, he said.

“We have a very large immigrant Hispanic community, and we’re sensitive to their needs,” he said.

Our focus is on crimes committed in San Luis Obispo. That’s not based at all on immigration status.

Capt. Jeff Smith of the San Luis Obispo Police Department

Capt. Jeff Smith of the San Luis Obispo Police Department said officers don’t ask about residents’ citizenship when responding to calls.

“We’re a local municipality,” he said. “Our focus is on crimes committed in San Luis Obispo. That’s not based at all on immigration status.”

Smith said he thinks those in the country illegally may be apprehensive about contacting law enforcement agencies in an emergency. But he doesn’t want that to be the case.

“Our focus is still and will always be to serve the people in our community,” he said. “We don’t want them to hesitate to call or contact us because we’ll look into their immigration status.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1