As officials unveiled a series of public service announcements on the importance of reporting crime, Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes, who is running to be elected sheriff next month, assured residents Tuesday that his agency is not enforcing immigration laws.
The television public service announcement are meant to assure immigrants living in the country illegally that law enforcement will not arrest them if they report a crime or are victims of a crime.
"There is some rhetoric in local media that law enforcement" has been enforcing immigration laws, Barnes said at a news conference at the Mexican consulate's office in Santa Ana.
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"That is not true," he added. "We do not enforce immigration law. We have never enforced immigration laws and we will not enforce immigration law on the street level."
Barnes said any indication otherwise "sends a dangerous message to the community and erodes trust" in law enforcement.
"We don't ask for immigration status" when responding to any reports of a crime, Barnes said.
"If you call for help we will be there for you," he said.
"We will not be subjecting anyone to any inquiry regarding your immigration status."
Barnes, however, acknowledged that his department has cooperated with federal immigration authorities when it comes to transferring some Orange County jail inmates to a federal facility for immigration enforcement.
But Barnes pointed out that of 58,129 inmates booked last year only 580 were released to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
"That is less than one percent of the jail population," he said.
"Those handed over to ICE are serious offenders."
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, recalled at the news conference how he came home from work one day to see a lot of police activity in his neighborhood. It turned out someone had called police about a rape in progress and authorities caught the suspect, who was linked to about 20 assaults, he said.
"And I often think how many other victims never came forward to report their sexual assaults because of their immigration status," Correa said. "This is a challenge we have here in Orange County... You have to come forward. You have to report these crimes and you should not fear doing so because of your immigration status."
Duke Nguyen, who is running for sheriff against Barnes, said it was a "great idea to educate the public."
But, he added, "This PSA is just another example of the department's reactive policy. We need to be proactive and make sure our communities trust our Orange County sheriffs."
Nguyen noted that Barnes has criticized the state's Sanctuary State law that seeks to limit how much local law enforcement can share with federal authorities on immigration issues.
Nguyen also pointed out how sheriff's officials are "circumventing" the state law by "putting all release dates online because they do not agree with the law."
"To have the leader of the fifth-largest sheriff's department in the nation ignore the letter of the law and act on their own interpretation of the law is dangerous," Nguyen said.
"Their actions stoke this climate of fear that we now have across our immigrant communities... Of course people are scared of law enforcement and of course it will cause less cooperation between these communities and the Orange County Sheriff's Department."
Sheriff's officials released this statement in response to Nguyen: "This deliberate and contentious rhetoric is exactly why we partnered with the Mexican Consulate to create these PSAs. The clear and consistent message in these PSAs is that local law enforcement never has, and never will, enforce immigration at the street level.
"That is the responsibility of the federal government. To perpetuate this myth and belittle efforts targeted to educate our immigrant community serves only to promote a personal agenda at the expense of people we are dedicated to protecting."