September 27, 2013; 04:42 PM
The Press-Enterprise

The state bill prevents inmates from being handed over to immigration; he says it’s wrong to ignore a federal mandate

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon won’t lobby against the
TRUST Act, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, his liaison says.

After months of neutrality, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon now says he opposes a bill that would prevent police from handing over many nonviolent jail inmates to immigration authorities for possible deportation.

Currently, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asks jails to hold inmates who are identified in a federal electronic database as living in the country illegally. The TRUST Act would require police in California to stop those immigration detainers for people arrested for relatively minor offenses.

The Legislature this month sent the measure to Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not said whether he plans to sign it into law.

Supporters of the bill say local law enforcement agencies shouldn’t help immigration authorities in the deportation of people who only have been accused of — and in many cases not convicted of — minor offenses, such as riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or being drunk in public.

McMahon believes “it is not appropriate for a local agency to not comply with a federal mandate,” said Deputy Lolita Harper, the sheriff’s liaison to the Hispanic community.

The sheriff typically does not lobby on legislation and does not plan to contact the governor about the TRUST Act, she said.

McMahon joins the California State Sheriffs’ Association in opposing the bill. The association said in a statement that the bill is too vague and would lead to the release of violent criminals.

The bill allows for continued immigration holds on convicted violent offenders.

Last year, Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff was a leading voice against the TRUST Act and wrote Brown to urge him to veto the measure. He has not sent a letter this year, said Jessica Gore, his legislative assistant.

Gore said she was unable to find out whether Sniff opposes this year’s version of the bill. Sniff did not return phone calls for comment.

Brown vetoed a 2012 version of the TRUST Act, saying it did not make enough crimes eligible for immigration holds. This year’s bill was changed to encompass more offenses, including any that would lead to state prison sentences, said Carlos Alcalá, a spokesman for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, the bill’s author.

Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San Bernardino Community Service Center, said he and other immigration activists met with McMahon twice in the past several weeks to explain why they support the bill. He said he was surprised McMahon is opposing the measure.

“In the end, it was a political decision,” Amaya said. “He’s looking at his political career and trying to appeal to his political base.”

McMahon, who in November was appointed sheriff to replace the retiring Rod Hoops, is up for election next year.

Harper said politics did not enter into McMahon’s stand.

“The department is taking this position because it truly believes that to pit state, local and federal law against each other is not conducive to any solution,” she said. “That is not political at all.”

Advocates of the bill argue there is no conflict. They point to a December statement by California Attorney General Kamala Harris that sheriffs are not legally required to honor requests for immigration holds.

In San Bernardino County, there were 1,289 immigration detainers issued from Jan. 1 through July 28, Harper said. About half of the inmates had been booked on felonies and half on misdemeanors, she said.

The statistics show that many people arrested for minor offenses are being turned over to immigration authorities, said Fernando Romero, lead coordinator of Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California.

“To me what the numbers say is we need the TRUST Act and need to get rid of 287g,” he said.

Romero was referring to the program under which ICE trains sheriff’s employees on how to determine whether inmates may be in the country illegally. San Bernardino County supervisors Tuesday approved an extension of 287g to June 2016.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s collaboration with immigration authorities makes undocumented immigrants less likely to report crimes, for fear of being deported, Romero said.

Harper said sheriff’s deputies do not ask victims or witnesses their immigration status.

Joe Guzzardi, national media director of the anti-illegal-immigration Californians for Population Stabilization, said the debate over the type of offenses eligible for the TRUST Act is irrelevant. Anyone living in the country illegally — especially those who break any non-immigration laws, no matter how minor — should be deported, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the intention of the TRUST Act is to deport as few people as possible,” Guzzardi said.