ICE Still Playing Role in L.A. Jails Despite Sheriff Villanueva Kicking Agents Out

By Maya Lau, Los Angeles Times

A jailer at a Los Angeles County lockup walked into a cell on a recent Monday morning and removed an inmate wanted by federal immigration agents.

Dressed in a hunter green uniform with a gold sheriff’s star on his sleeve, Rodolfo Cabrera served the man with a Homeland Security Department form that requested he be transferred to agents upon his release because he was suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

L.A. County Sheriff’s custody assistants Alexis Herbert, left, and Victor Gamont screen requests from ICE to take custody of inmates. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. County Sheriff’s custody assistants Alexis Herbert, left, and Victor Gamont screen requests from ICE to take custody of inmates. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who promised during his 2018 campaign to end the “pipeline to deportation,” has removed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from the largest local jail system in the nation and limited the criteria that allow inmates to be transferred to federal custody for possible detention or deportation.

But some immigrants’ rights groups call Villanueva’s moves a “bait and switch,” because inmates are still being delivered to ICE through officers who are contracted by the federal agency.

The reality inside the jails is a complex tango that grants ICE a role while distancing it as a law enforcement partner, illuminating the political tightrope Villanueva is walking in balancing the demands of the immigrant rights groups that helped him get elected with his own concerns over public safety.

“I know some people say we shouldn’t transfer any inmates from jail to ICE. Others say we should have an ICE agent in practically every jail cell. As L.A. County Sheriff, my priority is to ensure everyone’s public safety and to uphold the law,” Villanueva said in a statement. “We are protecting everyone, including undocumented persons, by not letting those violent criminals back into the community where they pose a threat.”

Villanueva noted that ICE transfers declined 47% from January through April compared with the same period last year.

Before Villanueva took office, ICE agents were allowed to use an office inside the Inmate Reception Center — the downtown lockup that processes the majority of people booked in and out of the Los Angeles County jail system. The agents had access at all hours and could freely approach inmates to interview them, said Capt. Brendan Corbett, who supervises the facility.

The sheriff quickly trimmed the list of qualifying crimes that would allow an inmate to be transferred to ICE, removing 50 misdemeanors and making it so only those convicted of misdemeanors within the past three years (down from five) could be transferred.

He also canceled the department’s participation in a grant program that required sending federal officials a database of inmates’ places of birth, which he said had been used to identify people who might be in the country illegally.

The inmate who was taken out of a cell recently by a Sheriff’s Department custody assistant ultimately was not handed over to federal agents that day. During processing, jail officials noticed that a court had ordered he be sent to a rehabilitation facility upon his release.

But the man’s experience illustrates how the Sheriff’s Department interacts with immigration officials.

Like all inmates, he was fingerprinted as he was booked into the jail. The prints were sent to a federal database, which allowed ICE to identify him as potentially being in the country illegally.

ICE sent a form known as a “detainer” to the Sheriff’s Department, asking that the man be transferred upon his release. A Sheriff’s Department custody assistant combed through the inmate’s file to see if his criminal history was serious enough to qualify him for transfer. (It was.)

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Olivia McDowellComment