Deportation panic

Rumors of a major immigration sweep targeting Northern California have put politicians, local activists on even higher alert

Citing a source familiar with the operation, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that federal immigration authorities were plotting what could be the largest deportation sweep under President Donald Trump in cities across Northern California.

The January 17 article said the planned raids could result in the arrests of 1,500 undocumented immigrants as the Trump administration looks to make an example of California, which rebuked the president’s anti-immigrant agenda by mandating non-cooperation with indiscriminate deportation efforts. Since the Chronicle report, communities across California have been tensing with anticipation over what may be heading their way.

“Everything continues to be rumors,” said Carlos Montes-Ponce, a community organizer with Sacramento ACT (which stands for Area Congregations Together). “People are really looking for information.”

But the federal government’s plans have remained locked in a proverbial black box, with even powerful politicians pressing for answers.

In a joint letter issued the same day as the Chronicle report, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris requested a briefing from Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. The letter referenced Homan’s January 2 statements on Fox News, where he ominously warned that “California better hold on tight.”

“We firmly believe that law enforcement must prioritize dangerous criminals, not undocumented immigrants who do not pose a threat to public safety,” the California Democrats’ letter read. “Diverting resources in an effort to punish California and score political points is an abhorrent abuse of power, not to mention a terrible misuse of scarce resources.”

An ICE spokesman didn’t respond to an SN&R request for comment Tuesday.

A day earlier, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said during a meeting with a community advisory board that he was in the dark, too. “I’ve never been informed of an ICE raid,” Jones said. “We don’t work with them. We don’t do anything. They do their thing.”

The Sheriff’s Department does have a passive relationship with ICE, which enforces federal immigration policy in the nation’s interior. Since 2000, ICE has leased space at the Sheriff’s Department’s jail in Elk Grove, where ICE incarcerates detainees being processed for deportation.

California’s so-called sanctuary law, Senate Bill 54, further restricted the level of cooperation that local law enforcement agencies and employers can grant to federal immigration authorities, but carved out an exception for preexisting detainee contracts like the one the Sheriff’s Department has with ICE. “It doesn’t affect our ability to continue that contract or renew that contract,” Jones explained.

That contract is due to expire later this year, unless the federal government and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors decide to renew it.

Jones noted that SB 54 “still allows ICE to come into our facilities and access our inmates,” though the inmates have to be advised of their right not to speak to agents. “It has very little impact on their ability to come in and conduct interviews and take custody of most of the folks they would otherwise take custody of,” the sheriff added.

In the meantime, immigration advocates are on high alert, where they’ve been since Trump was elected.

On Monday, more than 100 people from different faiths and 13 states struck a defiant tone against the raid rumors inside a ballroom at the Hilton Sacramento Arden West in North Sacramento. The Sacramento Immigration Coalition was among the organizations represented. The coalition organizes regular know-your-rights trainings, has set up a rapid-response hotline and is training community members to act as legal observers—“what we call moral observers,” Montes-Ponce said.

The organizer was careful to note that legal observers are dispatched to scenes of immigration arrests to monitor authorities, not to intervene. “They’re only there to observe, not to break up anything,” he explained.

Since SB 54 went into effect, Montes-Ponce said Sacramento ACT has been hearing anecdotal accounts of ICE agents arresting people at their homes in the early morning hours.

“Right now it just continues to be threats,” he said.