Santa Clara County lawmakers make no changes to ICE detainer policy
Residents of Santa Clara County rally with members of the Forum For Immigrants Rights and Empowerment (FIRE) Coalition to urge the county's Board of Supervisors to maintain its Sanctuary City policy of noncooperation with I.C.E. on June 6. Photo by Kyle Martin.

A nail-biting 56 days have passed since the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to explore changes to the county’s sanctuary city policy, but on Tuesday it voted unanimously against a notification policy preventing law enforcement from cooperating with ICE officials.

Emotions ran high among the public at April’s grueling and nearly eight-hour long meeting that divided lawmakers on the policy following the brutal stabbing of Bambi Larson, a woman who was killed by an undocumented immigrant in her home. At the time, just one lawmaker — Supervisor Susan Ellenberg — voted in favor of no changes to the policy.

Similarly, on Tuesday, a large turnout of impassioned speakers expressed their concern over changing the policy and Supervisor Mike Wasserman — in a stunning turnaround — changed his mind on his initial call for the county to establish a notification policy that would alert ICE officials when an individual was being held in custody.

“After much investigation and research, our County Counsel, law enforcement, D.A., public defender and numerous immigrant rights organizations have proven that there is no practical and legal way of knowing if a person within our custody is truly undocumented,” said Wasserman. “For that reason, I withdraw my suggestion of notifying ICE.”

Supervisors Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez followed suit, while Ellenberg said in a statement that her position remained unchanged. President Joe Simitian voted alongside his colleagues, but expressed support for cooperating with immigration officials when “someone is in the country unlawfully and has committed a serious or violent felony.”

“I want to re-iterate that our immigration system is fundamentally broken in this country. No one has to persuade me that ICE is an agency and entity that all too often is a bad actor,” said Simitian. “It’s important that we agree that for the most part we don’t want our county government to be working hand and glove with immigration officials. The question is– should there ever be an exception to that policy?”

In an extensive staff report, the county’s executive and counsel recommended against making changes that would allow law enforcement and county officials to cooperate with or notify ICE, highlighting key reasons that influenced the decision.

The report’s policy recommendations weighed how the history of anti-immigrant sentiment has created hostility towards immigrant communities, the Trump administration’s “harmful” policies on immigration, the county’s leadership in welcoming immigrants into the community and skepticism behind working with a “dysfunctional” institution such as ICE.

Instead, County Executive Jeff Smith recommended abiding with California’s Senate Bill 54, which prevents law enforcement officials from honoring ICE civil detainer requests, but complies with judicial warrants.The law also says employees cannot cooperate with ICE, law enforcement officials may not attempt to enforce immigration law, ask individuals about their immigration status or collect data on that status.

“We believe it is inadvisable to provide for any special collaboration with ICE outside of a judicial warrant process, particularly in light of ICE’s unlawful immigration enforcement practices, the likelihood of reducing immigrants’ willingness to access important County services, the complexity associated with determining what is a serious or violent felony conviction, and the fact that the County would have to rely on and could be subject to liability as a result of ICE’s questionable and/or unlawful practices,” said the report.

The decision sparked widespread cheers and applause from members in the audience, some of whom hosted a community rally outside the board’s chambers earlier that day.

“We made a really big, hard grassroots effort to get people out,” said Nicholas Hurley, a member of the group Showing Up for Racial Justice at Sacred Heart Community Service. “When the final vote came in today there was a big smile on my face. Cooperating with an agency that rips families apart not just at the border but even here in San Jose, is not the right thing to do.”

Ellenberg said she was proud to have her colleagues’ support, calling the vote Tuesday an issue of “equal justice.”

“We must separate issues of immigration status from administration of our criminal justice system and today’s decision strengthens and clarified that separation,” added Ellenberg.

But some county leaders pushed back, calling for stronger public safety measures.

District Attorney Jeff Rosen interrupted public comment to speak, advocating for a “middle” option that would consider a notification policy, insisting that his office would help protect immigrants from deportation if they spoke up about a crime. Rosen said he’s fought to implement a notification policy since he took office eight years ago, following several incidents involving undocumented immigrants committing crimes.

“If you are a dangerous criminal — undocumented or not — then we don’t want you here anymore. That’s not politics, that’s protection and protection is our job,” said Rosen. “This new policy that I’m proposing is not for Bambi Larson. This amended policy is for the woman walking alone from a bus stop on the East Side of San Jose, it’s for Cupertino kids crossing the street to get to school, it’s for the Gilroy grandmother who locks herself in for the night. It’s for those who speak English as their first language and for those who don’t speak English at all. Our responsibility is to all of them.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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