California's Sanctuary Law Drives Down Immigration Arrests at Jails By 41 Percent

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A photo released Tuesday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows people being arrested during an ICE operation. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Immigration arrests at local jails in California plunged 41 percent in the first five months following adoption of a state-wide sanctuary law last year, according to a report released Wednesday by a legal advocacy group.

“Sanctuary laws can really reduce the number of people turned over to ICE by local law enforcement and also can make a dent in the overall number of people deported from a state,” said Angela Chan, who managed the research project for the Asian Law Caucus and helped draft SB54.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “there are a number of departments who are not in compliance.”

Data gathered from nearly 200 law enforcement agencies in the state showed that implementation of the state sanctuary law has been uneven across counties, with many departments following outdated policies and procedures or adopting ones that fail to incorporate the new rules.

Key Findings

  • In the first five months of the law’s implementation, ICE arrests at local jails fell by 41 percent compared to the preceding five months.
  • Some 40 percent of law enforcement agencies in California are not fully complying with the law.
  • 41 percent of sheriff’s departments in California publish release information for all inmates on their website, including the date of release, upcoming court dates and locations, the city where the person lives and their occupation.

Patchwork Implementation

Documents obtained from 121 out of the 300 police departments in California, and from 48 of the 58 sheriff’s departments, revealed a patchwork implementation of the state sanctuary law.

Of the 169 agencies that responded to public records requests, the report found that 23 of them use out-of-date or inadequate policies. Another 40 agencies adopted policies drafted by a private company, Lexipol, that do not comply with the new law, while five agencies have no immigration enforcement policies at all.

Jail Transfers to ICE

One of the most controversial provisions of the state sanctuary law prohibits sheriff’s departments from informing ICE about the release dates of undocumented immigrant inmates, except in cases where the person has a serious or violent conviction.

California's sanctuary state law

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, did not respond to KQED requests for comment about the report’s findings.

The sheriffs’ group fought passage of the state sanctuary law, saying they believed it would have a negative effect on public safety. Communication between local and federal law enforcement officers should not be limited in any way, they said. They feared doing so could result in the release of dangerous criminals who would otherwise have been deported.

The deadly shooting of a police officer in December is the most recent violence committed by an undocumented immigrant in California, with critics blaming sanctuary policies for letting him stay in the country. The 2015 killing of Kathryn Steinle sparked similar outrage over San Francisco policies that limited cooperation with immigration authorities.

Sharing Release Information

The state’s sanctuary law allows agencies to publicly post release information about an undocumented inmate if they publish such information for all inmates in their custody.

A number of sheriff’s departments already had a practice of posting release information online before the law passed, but the Asian Law Caucus found that some departments adopted the practice afterwards, specifically so they could share information with immigration officials.

Other sheriff’s departments are mis-interpreting the rules on sharing information with ICE, Chan said.

“What some sheriffs are doing is that they’re saying, ‘Because we’ve posted all of these release dates online that means now they’re publicly available, and so we can go ahead and specifically contact ICE or respond to ICE with a release date for a specific person,'” she said.

Twenty-two counties publicly posted release information for all inmates held in county jails as of Jan. 27, 2019.