Crime & Justice

Immigrant rights activists slam LA sheriff over ICE cooperation

The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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Some immigrant rights activists are angrily accusing Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell of "misleading" the public over his level of cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The criticism comes in the wake of the county inspector general's finding that the department failed to reveal the extent to which it helped Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents identify possible unauthorized immigrants being released from jail.

For example, as McDonnell was telling the Board of Supervisors that ICE was forced to find out release dates on a public website like everybody else, a deputy was providing immigration agents with printouts of when people were being released, including information like birth dates that are not public, according to the report released Monday by Inspector General Max Huntsman.

In addition, the report concluded that the department appeared to be defying a 2015 policy directive from the supervisors that ICE have no permanent offices inside the downtown Inmate Reception Center, where prisoners enter jail and are released.

Hunstman said ICE took its nameplate off of the door of its office but essentially kept agents there using Department of Homeland Security computers and regularly interacting with deputies as they grabbed inmates suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

"We are extremely disturbed by the report findings," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. "Los Angeles County prides itself to be a pro-immigrant jurisdiction, and while progress has been made, the report confirms an ongoing and secretive collaboration between the Sheriff Department and ... ICE."

Salas called the sheriff’s department "rogue" and said the five members of the Board of Supervisors should "reign-in" (sic) McDonnell, whom they accused of misleading the board, too. 

Supervisors did not comment or did not return calls seeking a response.The sheriff is elected by voters and not beholden to the board but receives his budget allocation from it.

In a letter to Huntsman responding to the report, McDonnell was partly contrite.

"With respect to our statements that we were either no longer providing ICE with lists of individuals being released, or that we did not provide release information to ICE, those statements were not accurate," McDonnell wrote.

He said ICE no longer has offices in the jails and that deputies no longer provide printouts of inmates being released.

But McDonnell also argued that some of his statements were designed for public consumption. For instance, the department had issued a statement that in 2016 only inmates who qualified as serious or violent offenders were turned directly over to ICE agents. But sheriff's deputies released some inmates whose offenses would not qualify as serious or violent under state law, the sheriff said.

"We did so for the purposes of characterizing for the pubic in a succinct, but general way, who was being released to ICE," wrote McDonnell. He noted the state does not say "some crimes of domestic violence, human trafficking, solicitation for murder," and others were serious when in fact it should.

The debate over whether local law enforcement should hand serious or violent offenders over to ICE was part of the contentious Summer debate over the so-called state sanctuary bill limiting cooperation, which McDonnell opposed.

In another example of the sheriff’s cooperation with ICE, the inspector general raised concerns about his giving "on-demand access" to a large database called the County’s Consolidated Criminal History Reporting System. It "contains a great deal of information that is not readily available to the public," the inspector general wrote.

McDonnell said ICE "is only being provided information that is provided to all local and federal law enforcement agencies."

Immigrant rights activists were angered by the report.

Emi MacLean, an attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, was frustrated that McDonnell admitted that some of the things he and his command staff said were inaccurate but didn't explain why his department issued such statements.

"I have to say I find it hard to believe that he didn’t know what was going on, on an issue he had really been leading the charge on," MacLean said.

The sheriff was a key opponent of legislation in Sacramento that designates California as a "sanctuary state."