Illustration by Owen Thomas.
Illustration by Owen Thomas.

The letters preluded the ICE arrests. They began arriving about five months ago, sending anxiety and confusion into the already uneasy undocumented Santa Cruz community, while sparking questions of what a sanctuary county promises.

The public defender’s office has received 19 letters since the beginning of the year.

These letters outlined the rights undocumented immigrants have when engaging with ICE, specifically that the interviews are optional. They were originally enacted to protect undocumented individuals, but have also highlighted how compliant the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office is with ICE.

Both undocumented inmates and their lawyers received these notifications from the Sheriff’s Office alerting them of the inmates’ rights if they chose to comply with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) interview. In some cases, the letters also let them know that ICE was aware of their release date. The letters are in compliance with the Truth Act, which went into effect Jan.1, 2017.Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 1.56.54 PM

“This has been happening the whole time, and we only know about it because of the Truth Act, which is frustrating,” said an anonymous member of Sanctuary Santa Cruz, a local organization that provides resources and advocacy for undocumented residents.

Despite being a sanctuary county meant to refuse to comply with ICE unless mandated by law or court, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department is complying with ICE.

On Wednesday, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart reiterated he will continue complying with ICE while also endorsing Senate Bill 54. Santa Cruz shares the sanctuary county designation with neighboring San Francisco and Monterey counties, both of which have drastically different arrest rates and interpretations of what a sanctuary county is.

Santa Cruz sheriff’s ICE compliance is not new. When ICE calls asking for information, the Sheriff’s Office responds. This has been the case for decades, and so far this year, the Sheriff’s Office has released eight undocumented individuals to ICE from the county jail, and several others have been picked up days after their release.

The letters are meant to alert inmates of their rights and help those who are undocumented. Yet in doing so, they are also revealing Santa Cruz sheriff’s compliance with ICE and implying to some that upon their release, ICE could be waiting at the front door.

“Public safety is not enhanced when local law enforcement officers enforce immigration laws or act in a manner that causes suspicion within the diverse communities we serve,” Hart said in a public letter of support for SB54, issued May 10. Yet to date, there have been more individuals released and picked up by ICE from the Santa Cruz County Jail than there were in total last year.

“We only tell ICE when they are released if they ask, and only if they have a release date,” said Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Clark, who spoke on behalf of Hart. “That is, only if they have been sentenced by the court. We are not proactively calling [ICE].”

Though Clark said funding had little to do with the decision to comply with ICE, Santa Cruz immigration lawyer Michael Mehr says it is one of the sole motivators in compliance with ICE.

“[Hart] said that he didn’t want to be an outlier because he was worried about relations with ICE and how it would affect the community,” said Mehr, who met with Hart to discuss SB54 and the ICE policy. “But then later, they let it slip that there is money involved.”

Sanctuary Status

“Sanctuary” is not a legally binding term or even a term with a universal definition.

“Before this, I would say that we are safely a sanctuary county as far as we knew, but in light of this we’re not,” said the Sanctuary Santa Cruz member. They said the Truth Act brought the sheriff’s compliance with ICE to light.

Many city officials and residents are operating under the assumption that sanctuary status prohibits cooperation with federal immigration laws and regulations. The Santa Cruz County sanctuary resolution passed on Jan. 10 states that, “no county resources may be used to assist in the enforcement of federal […] immigration status” unless required by federal or state statute or supported by court decision. Compliance with ICE is not required by law.

“We do speak to other law enforcement agencies. Sometimes they request certain information, no different than if [the Santa Cruz Police Department] (SCPD) called us and asked us for certain information,” Sgt. Chris Clark said.

The process of information sharing is not specific to the Sheriff’s Office. It begins with fingerprinting once individuals are booked. Their information is then sent to the California Department of Justice, which then sends information to federal departments, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Illustration by Anna McGrew
Illustration by Anna McGrew

“It is complying with existing law. There is information that is shared in a courtesy extended to law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes,” Clark said. “This information can also be retrieved by the public, but really [ICE is] a law enforcement agency that works for the federal government, like any other law enforcement agency that would call us and ask us certain questions.”

ICE gets information from other federal entities, and inquires about individuals at the county level. It is then up to the county to comply or refuse. Individuals with prior convictions have a higher priority for ICE deportation compared to those with first-time misdemeanor charges or other low-level or one-time offenses. ICE spokesperson James Schwab said the processes vary.

“Every case is different. There is not a streamlined process, and it’s actually confusing to me,” Schwab said, expressing a sentiment of confusion many share. “If they are a convicted criminal, or if they are just here undocumented, there are many different circumstances.”

President Donald Trump has pledged to withhold federal funding from places that don’t comply with his immigration policies. There are 15 counties in California that identify as sanctuary counties and Santa Cruz is one of them.

Santa Cruz County receives about $125 million in federal funding annually, said Santa Cruz County communications manager Jason Hoppin. This makes up nearly onefifth of Santa Cruz’s projected nearly $700 million annual budget. Hoppin added that a small fraction of the $125 million is Justice Department federal grants, yet neither he nor the Sheriff’s Office was able to verify how much federal funding the sheriff’s department alone receives.

“The sheriff is an independently elected official and the board doesn’t get to tell him how to do his job,” said Santa Cruz County district supervisor Ryan Coonerty. “But he has made clear his commitment to not cooperating with ICE and ensuring the trust and safety of our immigrant community.”

In the Santa Cruz County sanctuary county resolution, introduced by Coonerty, Santa Cruz pledged to uphold sanctuary county status by saying that no county resources can be used to help ICE, unless required by a federal or state statute or court decision. The resolution also praises Sheriff Jim Hart for not “entangling” with ICE and for building trust with the community.

Despite these statements by both Coonerty and Hart, the Sheriff’s Office does comply with ICE to an extent.

The Bigger Picture

“I don’t think we should give [ICE] a fucking inch,” said the Sanctuary Santa Cruz member who preferred to be anonymous. “[ICE agents] aren’t going to give us any breaks because we work with them. The people who give [ICE] the most breaks, like Sheriff [Steve] Bernal of Monterey County, end up having the most deportations in the area.”

Compared to surrounding counties, Santa Cruz has a relatively low ICE arrest rate at only 7 last year compared to 391 in Monterey. Unlike Santa Cruz County Jail, Monterey has an ICE representative who works within its county jail. Yet it also considers itself a sanctuary county. “It works very well. We work very closely with [ICE],” Bernal said to KSBW in March. “They remove criminals who are undocumented from Monterey County. […] If someone is arrested and they are convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor or a series of three misdemeanors, those are the inmates that [ICE] is removing from Monterey County.”

But in Santa Cruz, those released to ICE are on lower-level, one-time misdemeanor crimes, said Cassandra Licker, an attorney at the public defender’s office. Compared to last year, ICE arrests are up 35 percent nationwide.

“There is no obligation to report [to ICE],” Licker said. “Participation and cooperation and communication with ICE is voluntary, but there are grants that local law enforcement receive that might become strings attached […] if they do not cooperate.”

Release dates are public information, yet they are not always easily accessible or updated online. Providing ICE with this information on request speeds up the civil immigration hearing process.

Rising Tensions

Tensions between Santa Cruz city police and the community have been shaky since the DHS immigration raid in February, which led to the arrest of 12 alleged gang-related individuals. In this raid an additional 10 residents were detained or arrested solely on immigration status. SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel said that SCPD was “misled” by the DHS.

“We can’t cooperate with a law enforcement agency we cannot trust,” Vogel said at a February press conference following the raids.

Even if SCPD isn’t cooperating, those it arrests are subject to ICE scrutiny. Those arrested by SCPD are sent to the county jail, which is operated by the Sheriff’s Office. Even if SCPD is committed to rebuilding trust in Santa Cruz, it doesn’t change the ICE arrests that many undocumented residents face once released from the county jail under the sheriff’s watch.

Receiving a letter does not mean the individual will be deported, said ICE spokesperson James Schwab. Rather, it is meant to help alert undocumented individuals of their rights if ICE comes knocking. Once an individual is picked up from Santa Cruz by ICE, they are taken 75 miles north to the San Francisco Immigration Court, one of six immigration courts in California. Once here they await a civil hearing and potentially deportation.

“Even if they are just picked up from another county jail and transferred to ICE custody they will still see an immigration judge,” Schwab said.

The interview process is initiated to determine if there should be deportation proceedings. So far, ICE has not requested any interviews, despite eight people being taken into ICE custody upon their release from the Santa Cruz County Jail.

“If you have someone whose counsel is not present and they are told someone is there to interview them, they don’t understand what’s going on and a lot of them say yes by default,” public defender Cassandra Licker said. “It’s not understanding how the system works and not understanding that it’s voluntary. I see so many people waive their rights and agree to things because they don’t understand what’s happening.”

But the letters don’t discriminate. They go to those with felony convictions, misdemeanor convictions, of any race, any gender — the only determining factor is documentation status.

“[The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office] will respond to ICE in all cases. That includes people who are low-level misdemeanants, those who are not convicted of a crime,” Licker said. “They will respond regardless of the charges and the procedural posture of the case.”


Sheriff Jim Hart said he will support SB54, proposed by Senator Kevin De León in the wake of the new federal administration. The bill aims to declare California a sanctuary state for undocumented residents.

“It sounds like SB54 will solve some of this and take the [issues] out of the equation and dictate what we will do,” Clark said. “It’s really about adhering to state law and doing what’s right.”Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 1.57.27 PM

If passed, the bill will likely not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2018. This would leave a one-year gap in which compliance with ICE is up to the sheriff’s discretion. Santa Cruz immigration lawyer Michael Mehr said the sheriff was “open-minded” to reconsidering cooperation, depending on the outcome of the bill. Mehr believes Hart is compliant with ICE to a certain extent because he does not want to stand against ICE alone.

“[Hart’s] official position is he thought SB54 is the right way to deal with it because it would be state law, and he didn’t want to be an outlier among sheriffs,” Mehr said. “When I indicated that some sheriffs have refused to honor ICE requests for notification, he indicated he was worried about loss of several funds, and that there are federal funds that could be withheld that they currently get and are planning to get in the future.”

Many express little understanding of why there is cooperation in the first place. There are a number of ideas as to why the Santa Cruz County sheriff chooses to comply to a certain extent with ICE. Some have expressed fear of an increase in ICE enforcement in Santa Cruz, while others maintain that it is because of federal funding, though Sgt. Clark denies this.

“Any cooperation with ICE is not acceptable and we are happy the sheriff is endorsing SB54. But as it stands, Santa Cruz is a sanctuary county and sanctuary city and they are under no obligation to respond to ICE requests or allow ICE into [the county jail],” Cassandra Licker said. “Doing so, by their own words, is breeding distrust in the community and making our immigrant community members feel scared and vulnerable.”