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San Mateo County sheriff, immigration rights activists go head-to-head at TRUTH Act forum

In 2020, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos released 15 immigrants to ICE, more than any other county in the Bay Area.
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San Mateo County Sheriff and Superior Court in Redwood City on Feb 3, 2021.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story calculated the percentage of immigrants transferred based on imprecise data from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office and the California Department of Justice. The two agencies each reported different figures. While the DOJ reports 26 transfers, the county said it transferred 15 immigrants to ICE custody, which accounted for 62% of all Bay Area transfers in 2020. The Sheriff's Office reconciles this discrepancy by stating that 15 immigrants were convicted of 26 crimes. The Redwood City Pulse is reviewing data and will provide an update at a later time.

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A group of residents and local advocates will gather on Wednesday to protest the voluntary transfer of convicted immigrants by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office to federal immigration officials.

Led by the San Mateo County Coalition for Immigrant Rights (SMCCIR), the rally will take place both virtually and in front of the Superior Court in Downtown Redwood City, followed by the annual TRUTH Act Forum presented by the county. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, Asian Law Caucus, the private defender panel and an individual who has been directly impacted by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transfer will present during the forum.

“Whenever a government body gives ICE access to any community member, including through the county jail, then the county has to hold this public forum,” said Sarah Lee, a Community Advocate at Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and SMCCIR collaborator. Lee said that she and the other organizers are protesting the voluntary practice of transferring immigrants, who are eligible for release, from the county jail to immigration officials. 

The rally will be held at 400 County Center, Redwood City, at 5 p.m., followed by the TRUTH Act Forum at 6 p.m., which can be accessed through a public Zoom link.

According to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, led by Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, released 15 immigrants to ICE in 2020, accounting for 62% of all Bay Area transfers and more than any other individual county. At least eight counties in California have ended the practice altogether, including Marin, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Napa, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties, which made no transfers in 2020.

“What happens is that, just like anybody else, an immigrant, who is in county jail, has to go through the criminal legal system,” said Lee. “But what happens at the point of their release is that the sheriff's office coordinates with ICE on their release date so that immigrant community member is instead handed to ICE for detention and deportation.”

The practice is permitted by California Senate Bill 54 (SB54), also known as the California Values Act, which went into law in 2018. Although SB54 “ensures that no state and local resources are used to assist federal immigration enforcement,” according to the ACLU, Lee said that it only limits transfers to ICE. The law in part says that police “cannot tell immigration agents when you will be released, or transfer you to their custody, with some exceptions.” Exceptions include immigrants with felony convictions that are considered serious or violent.

Sheriff Bolanos told the Pulse that all county transfers meet these requirements.

“Pursuant to SB54, the California Values Act, each one of these individuals had qualifying convictions,” he said. “Per the law, we responded to a request for notification from ICE and they came to pick them up.”

According to Bolanos, examples of the crimes committed by these individuals include kidnapping, lewd and lascivious acts towards a child under the age of 14, and assault with deadly weapons. 

Bolanos explained that these transfers are initiated by a “request for voluntary notification of release of suspected priority alien,” or I-247N, from ICE. The sheriff’s office will then file the notification paperwork, do a thorough review of the case and, upon final approval from the captain correctional officer, notify and coordinate a pickup with ICE. From October 2020 to September 2021, San Mateo County received 141 requests for notification and made 13 transfers, according to Bolanos.

“I am the child of immigrants, I’ve lived in immigrant communities,” said Bolanos. “I feel that these people we are releasing to ICE are serious menaces to our communities, especially immigrant communities. They’ve committed some very serious crimes. I believe from a public safety perspective, it is appropriate for me to turn them over to ICE upon their request. Most importantly, that is the law.”

But Lee and her fellow advocates disagree.

“If [Bolanos] thinks that these community members are a risk to public safety, I want to reiterate that he's basing it off of a conviction or a charge that they have already served the time for. So a citizen who went through the same exact process, he simply releases,” she said. 

Lee added that, while SB54 allows local law enforcement to choose to notify ICE, it makes no requirement to do so. 

“This practice, transferring immigrants to ICE from county jails, is actually completely voluntary. There's no legal obligation by the sheriff to continue this practice,” Lee explained. “And so he can stop this as soon as today.”

According to Bolanos, the number of transfers has been decreasing over the last few years, which he speculates may have to do with the current administration “trying to narrow the focus of the individuals they're targeting.” 

Miosotti Tenecora, an immigration attorney and organizer of the rally, acknowledged the recent downward trend but added, “even one transfer is too many.” 

Tenecora also said that there’s a discrepancy in the number of transfers reported by the sheriff’s office for 2020. The California Department of Justice reported 26 transfers from San Mateo County, while the local sheriff’s office reported just 15.

According to Lee, the difference is partially explained by a change in how the county sheriff's office handled the data. In previous years, the sheriff's office reported the number of individuals who were transferred to ICE, but in 2020 they began reporting the number of individual offenses, Undersheriff Mark Robbins wrote in an email to Lee.

Bolanos said over the phone that, while there were 26 qualifying offenses in 2020, the total number of ICE pick-ups from San Mateo County was 15.

However, Lee noted that comparing the number of offenses reported by the sheriff’s office and the DOJ, there's still a discrepancy.

“In the 2020 DOJ data, it's still missing 12 offenses that appear in the sheriff's data,” Lee wrote in a message to the Pulse. “And then the sheriff's data are missing at least four offenses from the DOJ.”

Lee said the Coalition for Immigrant Rights is currently in communication with the sheriff’s office to try to reconcile the conflicting counts.

Wednesday’s forum and rally come as California legislators prepare to vote on the VISION Act (AB 937), which would prohibit law enforcement from responding to requests for notification and coordinating ICE transfers. The bill would also repeal provisions that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation identify and report the number of state prison inmates who are non-citizens, including inmates and refugees.”

Lee expects at least 30 people to attend the rally and continue putting pressure on Bolanos and the sheriff’s department to end the transfer practice. 

She said that six empty chairs will be displayed, “symbolizing the family table and the holidays coming up and the loved ones who are not going to be with their families.

“When you look at the comparison between an immigrant and citizen, who has gone through the same situation, maybe the same conviction, his assessment of public safety is based fully on where someone is born,” said Lee. “There is no data that says anything about someone's immigration status as being a risk to public safety. And that is just plainly discriminatory and a two-tiered system of justice.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the potential impacts of the VISION Act. The bill applies to reporting all non-citizen inmates. To request a correction, contact editor@rwcpulse.com.

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Leah Worthington is the lead reporter at the Redwood City Pulse, a local news site dedicated to providing accurate and timely news to the Redwood City community. Leah can be reached at lworthington@rwcpulse.com, on Twitter, and by phone at 650-888-3794. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.




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Leah Worthington

About the Author: Leah Worthington

Leah is the lead reporter for the Redwood City Pulse. A Bay Area native, she has written about everything from biotechnology to true crime. When she's not writing, you can find her running or baking. Habla español!
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