Deporting Undocumented Immigrants in San Diego, How Will The President's Plan Playout in San Diego

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department outlines its policy on immigration enforcement and two attorneys explain what it means for undocumented immigrants with or without criminal records.

As the Department of Homeland Security announced 680 arrests in roundups last week targeting immigrants living illegally in the United States, local immigration attorneys are uncertain about the role local law enforcement agencies will play in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

However, in statements to NBC 7, the California Highway Patrol, the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department have said their officers and deputies will not stop and arrest individuals based on immigration law.

Details of who was arrested in last week's federal raids were not made available, but the arrests and rumors about other raids sparked fear and confusion among immigrants.

President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order on Jan. 25 authorizing local law enforcement agencies to deport undocumented immigrants who have criminal records.

Weeks later, while addressing law enforcement chiefs and sheriffs at a national meeting, the president directed them to identify the "bad ones" to DHS for deportation.

NBC 7 asked the San Diego County Sheriff's Department if its policy regarding undocumented immigrants would change in light of the new executive order.

Being in the country without documentation is not a criminal act the sheriff's department will actively enforce, according to an official statement.

"Deputies will not stop or detain a subject to check their documentation or immigration status based on the appearance of foreign ancestry alone," the statement reads. "Whether they are a victim or a witness to a crime, we do not want our immigrant residents to be afraid to call the Sheriff’s Department."

However, deputies will continue to cooperate with federal authorities and with regards to undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Read the full statement at the bottom of the article. 

Maricela Amezola, an immigration rights lawyer with Amezola Legal Group, said that going forward, the situation will be "a clash of laws."

“It’s going to be really interesting to see how we have the federal law coming in and we have the state law saying we’re going to protect individuals already here, what’s going to trump what,” Amezola said.

On Friday, DHS Secretary John Kelly visited the San Ysidro Port of Entry and met with federal and local law enforcement officers to discuss security along the border.  San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and Sheriff Bill Gore attended the briefing. 

Pool video
DHS Sec John Kelly meets with leaders of San Diego County law enforcement agencies on February 10, 2017.

At one point, the new DHS Secretary said he couldn't define a sanctuary city, which the president has targeted for withdrawal of federal funding for refusing to cooperate with immigration authorities.

"I don't have a clue," Kelly told Chief Zimmerman when she asked for a definition.

The blunt-spoken, retired four-star general went on to say it was inconceivable why any jurisdiction wouldn't want criminals removed from their communities. "I'm stunned when people say, 'Well, we're not going to cooperate with you even in the event of convicted criminals," he said.

Kelly said it would be difficult to justify immigration enforcement grants to cities that refuse to cooperate.

"I promise you we'll work with you and will make no Draconian moves until I fully understand what a given locale might be doing or not doing," he told Zimmerman and other local police chiefs and sheriffs.

Both Zimmerman and Gore have said their officers and deputies would not act as federal agents when investigating crimes. 

"It is important that all residents in our jurisdiction, whether here legally or not, feel safe when they report crime and that there is a clear separation between our duties and those of immigration authorities," the sheriff's department statement reads.

Esther Valdes, an attorney specializing in immigration with Valdes and Associates, says the executive order and its enforcement could lead to confusion. 

“Sheriffs don’t know if they’re going to be sued for civil rights violations in light of the new executive order asking them to, in effect, be deputized and assist immigration officers," Valdes said. "Sheriffs don’t know if they should comply, and if they comply, will they be sued?”

She and Amezola differ on whether the presidential order creates a moral dilemma for law eforcement officers and agencies.

“It’s never a moral judgment when you put on the badge, when you put on the badge and the uniform you represent all of us, you vow to protect and serve all of us, whether documented or undocumented," Valdes said. 

Through spokesperson Lt. Scott Wahl, the San Diego Police Department said its policy regarding immigration enforcement has not changed.

The SDPD "recognizes and values diversity of the community it serves. The department focuses primarily on crime prevention and enforcing local laws," Wahl said in a written statement.

"Once a suspect is arrested and booked into the San Diego County Jail, the primary responsibility for the enforcement of federal immigration laws rests with the United States Customs and Border Protection Services," the statement continued. "The San Diego Police Department does not check the immigration status of victims and witnesses of crimes to encourage all people to come forward, confident in the knowledge their report will be investigated thoroughly and professionally."

A spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol told NBC 7 Friday the agency "does not stop motorists or take enforcement actions based on someone’s immigration status.”

Amezola said that in light of the president's executive order, she has seen humanitarian factors involved diminish. 

“What we’ve seen is that the humanitarian factor has been lifted, taken away from a lot of these agencies that they had before," she said. "Which is a contrast between the Obama administration and the new administration; the law is still the same, it hasn’t changed, but there were more humanitarian factors that were allowed to weed out the good from the bad.”

So what does all this mean for undocumented immigrants with and without criminal records in San Diego?

Amezola explained that when people are apprehended by immigration officials, they have rights, like asking for some type of relief in immigration court. 

“Other people have the ability to adjust their status and they might not even know it," said Amezola. "At this point it’s no longer feasible for people to stand by and wait to see what happens, they have to more proactive."

“Criminal illegal aliens wreak havoc in some of our communities, we have to balance that with the need to have victims and community members cooperate with law enforcement agencies," Valdes said. "I think America functions best when we all perform jobs and our duties correctly to maintain and uphold our laws.”

Both Valdes and Amezola come from immigrant families, and both are experts on the law, but in this uncertain time, they are not sure how local law enforcement will proceed.

Both attorneys have very different views on what may be ahead in enforcing the president's order.

“There was some type of discretion allowed to say yes to these immigrants and no to these -- that is (now) gone,” said Amezola.

Valdes said immigrants “come here because we want to be safe."

"I come from an immigrant family myself, I came here when I was 5 years old, we come here because the nations we come from don’t uphold the laws and we like law and order just like anybody else,” she said. 

Read the full statement from the SDSO: 

"On January 25, 2017, President Trump signed two Executive Orders dealing with the issue of immigration enforcement. Those orders discussed a number of actions including one directing the Secretary of Homeland Security, with the consent of State or local officials, to authorize State and local law enforcement to perform the functions of immigration officers in relation to the investigation, apprehension, or detention of aliens in the United States.

"Federal immigration law governs legal and illegal immigration into the United States, including how long a person can stay, and when they must leave. Federal immigration agencies and officials have primary jurisdiction and responsibility for the enforcement of immigration laws in San Diego County.

"The Sheriff’s Department has a long history of working in cooperation with Federal authorities both in our law enforcement practices and in our jails. Sheriff’s Department personnel work hand in hand in Task Force settings with Federal agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol. For a number of years we have also shared information related to criminal immigrants in our jails.

"Task Force operations in San Diego combine Federal agents and local law enforcement officers in the same work space with the same mission and goals. This cooperation and coordination is a highly effective way to share resources and information which has proven to be the best way to fight gangs, drugs, violence, human trafficking, cyber-crime and a number of other sophisticated operations.

"In a similar way, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Detention and Removal (ICE/DRO) are assigned to Sheriff’s booking facilities for the purpose of conducting screenings and interviews of those suspected of violating Federal Immigration laws. These are criminal aliens who have committed serious crimes.

"When agents from ICE/DRO identify a Sheriff’s inmate that they would like to deport for violations of Federal Immigration law; they notify our detentions staff. By law the Sheriff’s Department cannot hold an inmate past the time that their State crime violation permits without a court order or warrant. However, we do notify ICE/DRO of release information in order for that agency to take custody of the person. That inmate is also notified of the Sheriff’s intent to comply with the ICE/DRO request.

"The Sheriff’s Department is not responsible nor do we have the authority or manpower to enforce immigration law. It is important that all residents in our jurisdiction, whether here legally or not, feel safe when they report crime and that there is a clear separation between our duties and those of immigration authorities. Sheriff’s deputies will not stop or detain a subject to check their documentation or immigration status based on the appearance of foreign ancestry alone. Whether they are a victim or a witness to a crime, we do not want our immigrant residents to be afraid to call the Sheriff’s Department.

"The Sheriff’s Department will continue to cooperate and collaborate in regional task forces operations and by allowing Federal authorities into our jails as it complies with existing state and federal law. We will also continue to separate ourselves from immigration enforcement which in the larger picture helps to keep our communities safer by allowing victims and witnesses to come forward without fear of deportation.

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