Immigration interference: California attorney general, lawmaker want to come between a sheriff and his juicy detention contract

If signed, state budget would block ICE from entering into any new or expanded detention contracts with local jails

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the June 22, 2017, issue.

President Donald Trump’s supercharged deportation force looks like it may extend a contract between ICE and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, while providing a boon to the latter agency’s bottom line.

Since 2013, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has sublet space at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove to incarcerate immigrants who are suspected of being in the country illegally. The contract kicks an average of $6 million in annual revenue to the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail.

According to Sacramento County budget documents, the Sheriff’s Department and its Correctional Health Services unit are expecting nearly $5.6 million in additional revenue this coming fiscal year, thanks to the department’s contracts with ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service.

A sheriff’s spokesman declined to say how much of that extra money was due solely from ICE locking up more immigrants in the Elk Grove jail. The spokesman did say that, as of June 20, the jail was holding 130 male immigrants for deportation proceedings. RCCC’s average detainee population is 119, according to a federal inspection report.

A larger surge in immigrant detention may still be on its way, however.

During Trump’s first 100 days in office, ICE increased its arrests of people suspected of being in the country illegally by nearly 40 percent compared to the same time last year. Between January 22 and April 29, more than 41,000 individuals were “administratively” arrested on civil immigration charges, ICE announced last month.

ICE agents apprehended 11,000 fewer people the year before, when the Obama administration was pressing the agency to prioritize the removal of undocumented immigrants with serious criminal convictions. While those standards never fully took hold, Trump has completely erased them from existence.

Under the president’s executive orders, all unauthorized immigrants are targets for removal, including undocumented parents of children born in the United States.

Those relaxed standards have only added to a backlog in federal immigration courts, where nearly 600,000 cases are awaiting decision, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which analyzes and publicizes federal government records obtained through public information requests.

In an email, TRAC co-directors David Burnham and Susan B. Long noted that most of the new cases this fiscal year don’t involve noncitizens who committed crimes.

“For example, in only 1.7 percent of all cases were individuals charged as having committed an aggravated felony, while an additional 4.1 percent were charged with engaging in less serious criminal activity that allegedly made them deportable,” their email reads. “Not a single person so far this year has been charged as being deportable because the individual endorsed or espoused terrorist activity, or were alleged likely to engage in terrorist activities.”

After Texas, California boasts the largest population of detained noncitizens, according to a release from Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. The release also noted that, since March, three detainees have died in custody at the privately operated Adelanto Detention Facility in central California.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra made it clear last week that he’s eager to do what sanctuary-friendly politicians in Sacramento have been unwilling to do—get between the sheriff and his money.

Preparing for an influx of incarcerated immigrants, Becerra said at a joint press conference last Friday with Lara that his Department of Justice would take a hard look at detention conditions at both private and contract facilities, like RCCC. A first report would be due March 2019.

“We need a clear understanding of the conditions of detention facilities housing civil immigration detainees,” Becerra said at the conference. “As chief law enforcement officer … I will always protect the basic rights of all Californians, including immigrants.”

“If the federal government won’t ensure the safety and humane treatment of people held in detention in California, we must do that job and stand up for human rights,” Lara added.

The federal Office of Detention Oversight already conducts compliance inspections at immigrant detention facilities, but they happen irregularly. Back in January 2015, ODO inspectors tagged the Elk Grove jail for 49 deficiencies, which briefly led to the suspension of the detention contract between ICE and the Sheriff’s Department.

The south state senator and attorney general also indicated the state budget would block ICE and local jails from entering into new or expanded detention contracts. How that would affect the longstanding arrangement between ICE and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, whose detention contract is set to expire in 2018, is unclear. Sheriff Jones was unavailable for comment, and a sheriff’s spokesman declined to answer the question.

Ending the profitable detention agreement is a step local politicians have been reluctant to take, despite pressure from segments of the public.

While Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to sign the budget lawmakers sent him, an ICE official said its proposed restrictions would be misguided.

“Placing limitations on ICE’s detention options here in California won’t prevent the agency from detaining immigration violators,” said the official, who spoke on background. “It will simply mean ICE will have to transfer individuals encountered in California to detention facilities outside the state, at a greater distance from their family, friends, and legal representatives.”

That’s a misleading argument for Joan Lacktis, of the volunteer-run Faithful Friend-Amigos Fieles, which coordinates visits with incarcerated noncitizens.

Lacktis, of Lincoln, has visited detained immigrants at both RCCC and the Yuba County Jail, and says most of the men and women she meets aren’t from the area anyway. That’s why her group exists in the first place, to let the undocumented know someone on the outside still cares.

“Their friends and families are not from around here,” Lacktis said. “I just think the whole county jail system is not the right place to house these people.”