RIVERSIDE COUNTY: Sheriff reviewing controversial immigration program
People listen in the hallway outside a full roon as Riverside County Sheriff Stanly Sniff speaks during a forum on immigration at Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Riverside on Sunday, June 9, 2013.

Published: June 09, 2013; 07:21 PM

Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff said his department is considering whether to drop out of a controversial program that trains deputies to screen inmates for immigration status.

At a forum Sunday, June 9, at a Riverside church, Sniff also vowed to work with immigrant-rights activists to increase immigrants’ trust in police. The sheriff acknowledged that some immigrants worry about cooperating with police for fear of being deported.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is one of about 40 law-enforcement agencies that participate in 287g, a federal program under which local officials ask some inmates about their birthplaces and other information that could indicate they are in the country illegally.
Opponents of 287g allege that Latinos are singled out for questioning. They also say minor offenders are flagged and later deported under the program.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday defeated a Democratic attempt to strip federal funding from 287g.
Sniff said he wants to gather more information from groups such as Inland Congregations United for Change — which organized Sunday’s forum at Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine — before deciding whether to sign another agreement with the federal government for 287g.
But Sniff said there would be no changes in the county’s participation in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's much larger — and also controversial — Secure Communities. In that program, the fingerprints of all jail inmates are checked with a federal immigration database.
Sniff has been a leading opponent of the TRUST Act, a bill in the California Legislature that would bar law-enforcement agencies participating in Secure Communities from putting immigration holds on low-level offenders.
ICE statistics show that almost 60 percent of Riverside County inmates deported under Secure Communities between October 2008 and April 2013 either had no record of a criminal conviction that ICE could locate or had been found guilty of minor crimes.
Sniff said Riverside County jails are so crowded that minor offenders aren’t held there. He said the ICE statistics are misleading, because some people convicted of minor offenses had been arrested for more serious crimes, and the charges were downgraded after plea bargaining or because the inmate was about to be deported.
In addition, Sniff said, even though California Attorney General Kamala Harris said last year that law-enforcement agencies aren’t legally required to honor ICE hold requests, the county’s attorneys and ICE say that they are.
Maria Rojas, an Inland Congregations volunteer leader who helped organize Sunday’s forum, questioned Sniff’s assertions about minor offenders. She said she and others have heard repeated stories of people deported after being arrested for minor offenses.
Rojas said she was pleased Sniff wants to work more closely with immigrant-rights advocates.
“We were very happy with his responses, especially because he wants to work with us to build a relationship with the immigrant community and the Latino community,” Rojas said.
But Sniff and other police officials still face mistrust from people like Maria Avila.
Avila, 33, said in Spanish that she was assaulted in her Riverside apartment about three weeks ago and “I didn’t call police because I was afraid the police would deport me.”
The Riverside Police Department bars officers from turning over crime victims to immigration agents. But Avila said she doesn’t trust police because, she said, her aunt in Anaheim was deported after police questioned her about a ball that flew through an apartment window.
“Whenever I see the police I wonder, ‘Will he stop me and ask for my papers?’” Avila said after forum. “It’s a constant fear you have.”