Right now, 18 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents work inside three jails in San Diego County, providing the federal government access to people arrested in San Diego 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It’s been that way for 10 years and a version of the arrangement goes back to 1998.
It is the cornerstone of cooperation between San Diego law enforcement and federal immigration authorities – one that ICE officials praised even as the Trump administration ramped up hostility to other municipalities uninterested in cooperation with the agency.
But the days of immigration agents working inside San Diego jails appear numbered. State Sen. Kevin de León’s office confirmed that Senate Bill 54, the sanctuary state bill, would force the ICE agents out of San Diego jails.
Allowing ICE to continue working in state or local law enforcement agencies outside of the stipulations made in the bill would conflict with the finding in 7284.2 (d) of SB 54 that states “Entangling state and local agencies with federal immigration enforcement programs diverts already limited resources and blurs the lines of accountability between local, state, and federal governments.”
SB 54 would also make it illegal for local law enforcement agencies to help the federal government investigate immigration enforcement actions. A city like San Diego has already decided it won’t deputize local police officers as immigration agents but the law would clarify that could not happen anyway.
A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. Construction is underway to extend a secondary fence over the top of this hill and eventually to the Pacific Ocean. / Wikimedia Commons
The state Senate has already passed the bill, and it’s now in the Assembly for consideration. If it passes in much the same form it’s in now, and the governor signs it, it would be the most significant change to local immigration enforcement in a decade – and it would come not from President Donald Trump but the state. It’s co-sponsored by San Diego Sen. Toni Atkins.
“Sen. Atkins does not support ICE being stationed in jails,” Atkins spokesman Dave Rolland wrote in an email.
Most of the ICE agents are in the San Diego Central and Vista jails. They are part of the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations team. Their 24/7 coverage of San Diego jails began in 2007. Before that, and before the Department of Homeland Security was created, criminal investigators from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service worked in local jails since at least 1997.
When Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly visited San Diego in February, this arrangement was on the mind of Sheriff Bill Gore.
“What the state of California is going to come up with down the road, it makes me shudder,” Gore told Kelly, according to an Associated Press reporter’s pool report of the meeting.
Something like SB 54 may be what Gore was concerned about. I asked his spokesman, Ryan Keim, who would say only that it was irresponsible to speculate on what might happen with the bill.
At the February meeting, Gore urged Kelly to find a way to get more warrants to pursue unauthorized immigrants who end up in San Diego jails. California law currently allows cooperation with federal enforcement operations if they have a warrant. The new law would also accommodate warrants.
Having ICE officers in San Diego jails has always been awkward for local law enforcement. San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, for instance, regularly works to assure residents that her officers are not enforcing immigration law.
“The San Diego Police Department does not check the immigration status of victims and witnesses of crimes to encourage all people to come forward, confident in the knowledge their report will be investigated thoroughly and professionally,” Zimmerman told the U-T last November. Gore has made similar assurances.
That’s what drives sanctuary city policies: the desires of local police chiefs to assure residents they won’t face removal from the country if they cooperate with police or report crimes.
But any assurance like that is belied by the fact ICE agents are stationed at San Diego County jails. If police or sheriff’s deputies detain an unauthorized immigrant, he will go somewhere where an ICE agent can take him into custody.
“When you hear local law enforcement say we don’t want immigrants to be scared, those are empty words when you have ICE literally stationed in the jails themselves,” Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, told me. Vakili believes the immigration enforcement system is balanced against those who are accused of being here illegally.
“ICE’s longstanding partnership with the San Diego Sheriff’s office has served the public well in our local communities. The program has helped ensure that criminal aliens who are amenable to deportation are not released back to the street,” ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said in a statement.
State Sen. Joel Anderson opposes SB 54. He made the case that ICE will do its work somewhere, if not in a jail then in neighborhoods.
“If we make it easier to collect someone in front of an elementary school than collecting them in a jail where they’re serving time, where do you think ICE is going to go?” he told us.