Trump’s inside man

A year before Jeff Sessions sued state, Scott Jones was working behind the scenes to foil SB 54

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones greets attendees of a March 28, 2017, forum on immigration that he thought would “turn the tide” on California’s sanctuary legislation.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones greets attendees of a March 28, 2017, forum on immigration that he thought would “turn the tide” on California’s sanctuary legislation.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

Nearly one year before Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California over its sanctuary legislation, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones was working behind the scenes to prevent its adoption, internal communications show.

According to a trove of emails obtained by National Day Laborer Organizing Network and shared with SN&R, Jones spearheaded a heated immigration forum last spring hoping to, in part, erode public support for legislation that restricts local law enforcement from actively assisting federal deportation efforts. The legislation, Senate Bill 54, became one of three new laws at the center of a federal court battle between California and the Trump administration.

In March of last year, Jones, who was then campaigning to unseat U.S. Rep. Ami Bera in his first congressional bid, personally invited Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to make a rare public appearance in the state capital “to turn the tide of SB54.”

The emails reveal sides of the sheriff that the public rarely sees—as a politician courting favor from a federal official, and as a local lawman who underestimated the Trump administration’s appetite for payback.

The invitation went out March 17, 2017. In an email to Homan’s office, Jones reminded the ICE director that the two met in Washington, D.C., and portrayed himself as the face of the resistance to California’s sanctuary legislation.

“You may recall, I was the Sheriff from Sacramento County that said my intention was to stand up against the law if it passes, because it is in direct contradiction to federal law and is therefore preempted (I’m also an attorney),” Jones wrote. “I asked if you or your office would ’stand with me’ if I decided to do so, and you said you would. That bill is quickly making its way through our democratic-supermajority legislature.”

After humblebragging that he had “the State’s attention on this issue,” Jones suggested that a community forum on immigration, co-headlined with Homan, could prevent a “showdown on this particular bill.”

Jones also credited Homan’s agency with displaying the very restraint that President Donald Trump removed two months earlier. The sheriff wrote that Homan could dispel “the notion that you’ll be going into communities simply to go after every law abiding alien (which is the narrative being advanced here), and re-asserting that you WILL be going in to get folks that fit your priorities (i.e., criminals).”

By this time, ICE was already operating under Trump-issued directives to round up all undocumented immigrants, not just those with criminal records, which was the policy of the Obama administration. ICE was also under fire for seizing suspected noncitizens at their homes and inside hospitals, outside of courthouses, churches and their children’s schools.

Jones’s initially invited Sacramento Area Congregations Together to help plan the event. But, in an email to an ICE official, he accused the social justice collective of “trying to assert demands and hijack this thing, but I’m shutting that down.”

Sacramento ACT executive director Gabby Trejo told SN&R on Tuesday that the group quickly decided against any association with the forum after learning its true intent.

“That gathering was an attempt to derail SB 54,” said Trejo, whose organization has been lobbying Jones to end his detention contract with ICE.

In his pitch to Homan, Jones suggested the two of them could make the case that indiscriminate enforcement would get worse if California became a sanctuary state, writing “that the best way to prevent wide nets from being cast in the communities is for law enforcement to cooperate with ICE where the criminals already are—the jails.”

A year later, ICE acknowledges it’s casting wide nets in response to California’s sanctuary status. Last month, a deportation sweep “in local neighborhoods and at worksites” throughout Northern California resulted in the arrests of 232 people, more than half of whom possessed no criminal convictions.

In January, Jones downplayed the impact SB 54 has had on ICE’s ability to enter his jails.

“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,” he told a community advisory committee.

The sheriff has long maintained that his department doesn’t cooperate with ICE outside of what happens inside his jails. That isn’t entirely the case.

Since 1994, ICE and the Sheriff’s Department have worked on the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force, to which other law enforcement agencies also belong.

SB 54 requires that these joint law enforcement task forces start reporting their activities to the California Department of Justice next year.

Jones’ prediction that the forum would “turn the tide” against SB 54 didn’t pan out. The California Legislature last year approved the California Values Act, which prevents state and local law enforcement from assisting in the enforcement of immigration laws. One reason? Immigrant communities won’t go to the cops if they think that reporting crimes will get them deported. The bill and other protections for undocumented immigrants reached the governor’s desk, including bills that prevent employers from cooperating with immigration investigations unless there’s a warrant and restrict jails from entering into new or expanded detention partnerships with ICE.

On March 6, the Department of Justice sued California over the constitutionality of its sanctuary policies. A day later, Sessions goaded state officials with a speech that misrepresented California as a rogue state of open borders and secessionist desires.

As the progressive American Immigration Council notes, sanctuary jurisdictions don’t protect unauthorized immigrants from detection or deportation. But the Trump administration wants more than passive compliance from states and local governments. The president signed a trio of executive orders last year making all 11 million unauthorized immigrants subject to deportation and claiming the authority to deputize local law enforcement in that massive endeavor.

ICE has actually tried deputizing local law enforcement before. In 2013, ICE drafted the Sheriff’s Department into a seaport border enforcement security task force, allowing Homeland Security to grant customs enforcement powers to sworn law enforcement employees under the Tariff Act of 1930.

“This agreement does not grant the designated Customs Officers the authority to enforce ’Immigration’ laws,” the contract pointedly noted.