No to non-sanctuary

Supervisors oppose proposed state law, but pass on controversial declaration

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea schools the county supervisors on immigration law.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea schools the county supervisors on immigration law.

Photo by Ken Smith

Butte County is by no means a sanctuary jurisdiction, but making an official “non-sanctuary” declaration is unnecessary and could be a detriment to public safety.

That was the takeaway from the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday (March 14), when the panel considered two actions on the hot-button topic of immigration—the approval of a letter opposing a proposed “sanctuary state” law (Senate Bill 54) and the adoption of a resolution declaring the county’s non-sanctuary status. Supervisor Larry Wahl had suggested the non-sanctuary declaration based on a similar move made last month in Tehama and Siskiyou counties.

Discussion of both actions was confined to one item on the agenda, and began with Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea giving some background on the recent history of federal and state immigration laws and his office’s ongoing efforts to comply with them.

Much of the current controversy relates to local law enforcement’s responsibilities regarding ICE detainers—orders from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold undocumented inmates for up to 48 extra hours so its agents can take custody and begin deportation efforts.

President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration threatens to withhold federal funding from jurisdictions that declare ‘sanctuary’ status or otherwise don’t aid in ramped-up ICE efforts. Meanwhile, the state’s SB 54 would severely limit interaction between local police and ICE by, among other things, prohibiting ICE agents from entering local jails to interview persons of interest. The bill is still evolving in the state Senate, and was amended last week to require state prisons and county jails to notify the FBI 60 days before releasing an undocumented immigrant convicted of a violent felony.

Honea explained that California law enforcement considered ICE detainers mandatory until the State Attorney’s Office declared compliance was voluntary in 2012. Since then, the Trust Act (passed in 2012), the Truth Act (which became law in January) and the fact that enforcing ICE detainers can put local agencies at risk of violating an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights (a detainer could qualify as a second, unlawful arrest) already limit police interaction with ICE. Honea said his department developed a policy in 2014 that allows its officers to comply with ICE detainers that fit the state’s current laws as long as ICE specifies charges and a judge signs a warrant indicating probable cause.

“This policy attempts to strike an appropriate balance between defining the current law, protecting the rights of individuals, mitigating the county’s exposure [to litigation] and my No. 1 priority, which is public safety,” the sheriff said.

Honea said the proposed SB 54, aka the California Values Act, too severely limits cooperation with ICE even when it comes to dangerous criminals, and it could also end beneficial partnerships between local and federal agencies that have nothing to do with immigration (he cited high-tech crime and terrorism task forces made up of local and federal law enforcement agents as examples). Furthermore, he warned that refusing to work with ICE could harm local immigrant communities.

“If [ICE] can’t come into our jails and interview people they’re interested in, they will go into our communities and arrest them there,” he said. “It could also result in collateral contacts resulting in the detention of individuals who are not the primary focus of ICE actions.

“Frankly, as the sheriff, I’m always a little concerned when I have federal officers running around our communities knocking on doors and making arrests. That’s something I’d like to be able to coordinate and monitor.”

Honea read a letter from District Attorney Mike Ramsey that echoed his concerns about SB 54 and urged the supervisors to send a letter opposing the bill in its present form to its author, state Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles). But Ramsey and Honea did not support the county declaring non-sanctuary status.

“The resolution is a correct statement of the law and practice in Butte County, but it’s my fear that there are those who will try to twist the board’s [statement] to unduly frighten undocumented victims and witnesses of crime, and make them unavailable to provide vital testimony in our courts to protect public safety,” Ramsey’s letter reads. “Such a resolution would cause victims of hate crimes, human trafficking, immigration scams and other crimes to hesitate in coming forward and cooperating with local law enforcement and my office.”

Honea agreed, adding that his responsibility to protect and serve extends to all residents of Butte County, regardless of their citizenship status. He also said his office doesn’t deal with ICE often enough for it to be an issue (right now, ICE is interested in just two of the more than 500 inmates in Butte County Jail, he said).

Public comment was also weighted against the non-sanctuary declaration, with nine of 10 speakers criticizing the idea.

“[This resolution] sends a message to our local immigrant community that they are not welcome here, and that we are watching them,” said Chico resident Morgan Kennedy. “It would reasonably cause mistrust of the local government and the police.”

Kennedy was also critical because the supervisors were considering the action based partly on threats to funding from the Trump administration.

“Is this the message we want to send our legal county residents?” she said. “That if our government makes a threat, and an empty one at that, we should bend to it?”

In the end, the board voted unanimously to send the letter opposing SB 54. However, none of the supervisors made a motion regarding non-sanctuary. Wahl stuck to his guns, though, noting activists have been advocating for the Chico City Council to declare sanctuary status, and that he believes similar questions will come before the supervisors eventually.

“At some point in the future, maybe we will have to make a resolution or decide that we aren’t a sanctuary city,” he said.