The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office notified federal immigration authorities of 77 release dates for people with felony convictions in 2020 — a practice that the sheriff defended at a meeting in the face of pushback from anti-deportation advocates.
Existing state laws limit the influence that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has on local law enforcement departments in California. In 2018, the sheriff’s office canceled a multimillion-dollar contract to detain immigrants in custody on behalf of ICE, following a national outcry at the time over the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the sheriff’s office does notify ICE of certain inmates’ release dates. Sheriff David Livingston said Tuesday that it’s important to be transparent publicly about who is getting out of custody after having committed a crime.
“Victims must be allowed to access release information,” Livingston said at a Truth Act forum, which state law requires the county to hold every year to inform the public of its dealings with ICE.
“We have had, ironically, various advocacy groups and NGOs call us and say, ‘Wait, we can’t access the release dates any longer,’ ” he said.
Fingerprints taken of suspects when they are booked by the sheriff’s office are automatically accessible by ICE. When the agency notes that a person of interest to ICE is in the sheriff’s custody, it requests that the office notify immigration authorities when that person is going to be released.
Last year, the sheriff’s office provided 77 release dates of the 389 ICE asked for, representing just under 20% of the total requests. Thirteen of those dates were for the same person, so there were 64 people total who were put in jeopardy of being contacted by ICE upon release from custody.
In data released ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the sheriff’s office said that 52 of the 64 people were Hispanic, 5 Asian, 2 White and 5 designated as “other.” All of them were male.
The number of release dates sent to ICE in 2020 was down from the year before — in 2019, the sheriff’s office sent 129 release dates to the agency.
But advocacy groups and at least one county supervisor had questions and concerns with the notification process at large. Angela Chan, a policy director and senior attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, pointed out that two of the immigrants coming out of custody with release dates sent to ICE were convicted more than 15 years ago.
During a presentation, Chan played a video featuring the family of Bounchan Keola, a Laotian immigrant who came to the U.S. at 2 years old, and who was picked up by ICE after being released from prison last year at the age of 39. Keola served two decades behind bars for attempted second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, crimes he committed as part of gang activity when he was a teenager.
“The truth remains that ICE is trying to deport my brother, who just finished serving his time and risked his life fighting blazing firefighters throughout California,” Keola’s unnamed sister said in the video, referring to her brother becoming injured while fighting wildfires as an inmate. “Bounchan wants to continue his career as a firefighter, continue making amends and continue giving back to the community.”
Meanwhile, Supervisor John Gioia questioned the nature of the crimes that qualify as serious enough for the sheriff’s office to notify ICE of release dates.
Of the 64 release dates sent in 2020, 50 were for “miscellaneous felonies” such as grand theft, burglary and sales of narcotics, according to sheriff’s office data. Then there were 5 for assault with a deadly weapon, 3 for robbery, 2 for annoying or molesting a child under 18, 1 for gross vehicular manslaughter, and 1 for murder or attempted murder.
Gioia argued that the designation of miscellaneous felonies — which represented the bulk of cases qualifying for release notifications last year — seemed imprecise, since there were different “degrees of seriousness” within that category. He also noted that he wasn’t condoning any crimes that people commit.
“I had my car broken into at Richmond BART station, and there were some papers stolen and things of minor value,” Gioia said at the meeting. “That comes within grand theft — so I guess that the person who committed that, potentially, depending on their immigration status, could be turned over to ICE and deported.”
Livingston responded that ICE doesn’t always necessarily deport people they pick up as they are being released out of custody, and often simply interviews them. He didn’t have more information about the federal agency’s specific actions when it came to the 64 people it was notified about, saying the sheriff’s office “doesn’t track that … and I don’t think ICE would tell us, frankly.”
Supervisors Candace Andersen and Karen Mitchoff defended the practice of holding immigrants accountable for what they do as U.S. residents. In a back-and-forth debate, Andersen told Gioia that she would “sincerely doubt” that someone convicted of a petty crime would be deported, saying an entire rap sheet is taken into account when it comes to immigration hearings.
“Some of this comes down to a fundamental difference of opinion,” Andersen said. “Some of us believe that if someone has committed a serious crime, and they are here illegally, even if they have served their prison sentence … there are many in the community who feel like it’s appropriate to examine whether or not they should remain in our country.”