Sheriff’s candidates for chief differ over deputies’ immigration role in jails

By Thomas Himes,
POSTED: 04/20/14, 7:36 PM PDT |

As the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department works out a new deal to detain immigrants for deportation, candidates vying to head up the agency disagree on whether deputies should do the work of federal agents.

Only 36 other departments across the nation task their local cops with routing out undocumented immigrants under the federal government’s 287(g) initiative, which allows local deputies who are trained by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to perform immigration enforcement duties.

If approved by the Board of Supervisors, Interim Sheriff John Scott could sign an agreement that may keep deputies enforcing immigration laws for two more years.

But five of the seven candidates running for sheriff in June’s election think the department needs to get out of the immigration business in favor of concentrating on dangerous criminals.

“Safety is my top priority, so I will work to make sure dangerous inmates who are not here legally are turned over to ICE,” said candidate Jim McDonnell, the police chief of Long Beach. “However, I do not believe the Sheriff’s Department should be tasked with doing the work of ICE.”

Over the last two fiscal years, the program has deported 6,494 people from the greater Los Angeles area,
which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino sheriff’s departments. ICE could not provide figures for individual counties.

About 42 percent of those deported were either convicted of misdemeanors (1,576 people) or classified as noncriminals (1,122 people), according to ICE documents. That figure stands to decrease, because The Trust Act — signed into law in October — prohibits local law agencies from detaining small-time offenders for their immigration status.

Unlike the oft talked about Secure Communities program, in which fingerprints are run through a federal database and individuals are identified by Immigration Customs and Enforcement, 287(g) relies on deputies to investigate whether inmates are undocumented immigrants.

“That’s why 287(g) is a valuable enforcement tool,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. “Deputies do the inmate screenings and follow-up investigations in person, often identifying deportable criminal aliens who wouldn’t have been detected based solely on their fingerprints.”

Sheriff’s candidates Todd Rogers and Bob Olmsted said they support the program as a means to quickly deport dangerous offenders, but caution that investigating the immigration status of every person jailed for a minor offense could do more harm than good.

“I don’t want people in our community to be afraid of reporting crimes to us, but I think there needs to be the partnership with ICE,” said Rogers, who is an assistant sheriff. “I think it’s appropriate to have them in the jails; they expedite the process.”

But candidate and senior LAPD detective Lou Vince believes violent criminals will be turned over to federal authorities without 287(g).

“If the sheriff has someone who is part of an organized criminal enterprise, that’s already going to be at the attention of the FBI and management,” Vince said. “But we don’t need deputies, down in the weeds, putting immigration holds on people.”

Vince’s views were similar to Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold, retired undersheriff Paul Tanaka and former sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez who said the department needs to end its 287(g) agreement and put its resources to better use.

“What I will do is, serious felons who produce violence in our communities are arrested and prosecuted,” Hellmold said. “What I will not do is break up families and overreach on inconsistent federal policies.”