Immigration advocates and attorneys say the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office has actively sought loopholes in California’s sanctuary law to help federal immigration officials arrest undocumented immigrants — raising questions about the law’s efficacy.
The law, passed last year as Senate Bill 54, prohibits local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to detain undocumented immigrants, though certain offenses give local agencies discretion to work with ICE.
Attorneys following SB 54 say there are loopholes in how it’s written. In contrast, Sheriff Margaret Mims admits although she’s not a fan of the law and thinks it threatens public safety, she’s upholding it.
As an example of such a loophole, some have pointed to the recent case of Ramiro Gonzalez Alvarez, a 32-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico who served two months in Fresno County Jail for his third misdemeanor DUI.
After serving his sentence, Alvarez was due to be released from jail. He was being processed in an area of the jail called the “release vestibule,” a small room with a locked door on each end. As he was getting his wallet from correctional officers, two federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were buzzed inside the secured room to detain him, according to Alvarez.
Only correctional officers are able to buzz open the doors, and a sign on the door closest to the public lobby reads, “Entering secured area.”
“(The ICE agents) went inside to wait for me,” Alvarez said in Spanish during a recent phone interview from Jalisco, Mexico.
The agents took Alvarez into custody, and shortly afterward he was forced to sign a self deportation order, he said.
Critics include immigration advocates and attorneys
Despite Alvarez’s undocumented status, some attorneys say his criminal history wouldn’t qualify under the sanctuary law to allow the Sheriff’s Office to turn him over to ICE.
“I think what’s happening is that ... we have a law that allows them to interpret it in a variety of ways, and they are interpreting it in the most restrictive way possible,” said Carter Sears, an attorney who works as an adviser for the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office.
Sears said based on his interpretation of the law, and his observations of how it’s being applied in Fresno County, the sheriff’s office is working around SB 54.
Attorney Aida S. Macedo, co-chair of the immigration subcommittee with the Central Valley National Lawyers Guild, views Alvarez’s case as a transfer of custody between the Sheriff’s Office and ICE. Macedo said the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have discretion under the sanctuary law to cooperate with ICE, in Alvarez’s case.
“If a person is not yet allowed to leave — they are still being processed to be released — they are not free,” she said. “If you look at it from a legal standpoint, they are still being detained at that point. So if ICE is coming and arresting them at that point, to me that’s a transfer.”
Araceli Martinez-Olguin, an immigrants’ rights project managing attorney at the Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, said she has heard reports of various law enforcement agencies trying to “find ways to get around SB 54 to skirt its requirements.”