Santa Clara County to explore changes to sanctuary city policy
Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley De-Bug

Amid a brewing battle on immigration, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors announced Tuesday that it will explore changes to the county’s sanctuary city policy following immense backlash from the community.

After an emotional meeting that included three hours of public testimony, county lawmakers voted 4-1 in favor of requesting county staff to come up with changes to address how the current ICE notification policy works and how judicial arrest warrants affect the welfare of the community.

The move comes after the murder of Bambi Larson, who was allegedly killed by an undocumented Salvadorian immigrant. Some have expressed growing concern that the county’s sanctuary city policy, which bars the county from notifying ICE agents when an undocumented immigrant is released from jail, poses a serious threat to public safety.

“If you are undocumented and have been convicted of a serious and or violent felony, you have only yourself to blame for spoiling your opportunity for a better life,” said San Jose resident Jonathan Fleming. “The murder of Bambi Larson could have been prevented if this was in effect prior to her vicious and barbaric killing. Immigration or citizenship status does not change the fact that serious and violent criminals should never receive sanctuary from laws designed to keep everyone safe.”

The referral was introduced by Supervisor Mike Wasserman after the Santa Clara County Police Chiefs’ Association drafted a proposal in favor of changing the existing policy to allow local police to notify federal immigration authorities when “serious and violent” criminal offenders are released from jail.

The current policy prevents local law enforcement from honoring any civil detainer requests, which are used to hold immigrants before ICE agents arrive to initiate deportation proceedings. The vote on Tuesday doesn’t amend the existing policy, but allows county leaders to explore future changes.

In the next 60 days, county officials will explore how the notification process works and what crimes it should apply to.

In an effort to raise awareness on changing the existing policy, San Jose City Councilmember Johnny Khamis said the policy makes everyone “less safe” — regardless of immigration status.

Khamis, a Lebanese immigrant, said that “it must be changed in a way that continues to respect all immigrants… and yet allows county personnel to pick up the phone and contact federal authorities when they have a dangerous, convicted felon in custody.”

But a large majority of residents didn’t agree, voicing support for keeping the existing policy. Several immigrants who spoke Spanish came forward to share stories of fear, and of loved ones who have been deported or incarcerated.

“The horrible tragedy that happened has nothing to do with immigration, it has to do with mental health,” said immigrant Soledad Reyes. “I ask that you consider the impact that this will have on children and families in doing away with the policy of our county and not cooperating with ICE.”

Many immigrants such as Reyes expressed the stress and sadness of being separated from their families, while immigrant rights activists said the new proposal would disproportionately target and criminalize immigrants.

“It’s not equal treatment of the law,” said advocate Sandy Perry. “It’s wrong to have a double standard that would detain Mexicans with criminal records that would allow white people with criminal records to go free. Do not buy into the lie that the President of the United States tells.”

Deacon Steve Herrera, alongside other religious leaders in the community, agreed that families and children are already facing constant fear and are “devastatingly impacted by an unjust and broken court system.”

In a letter to county officials, five San Jose City Councilmembers — Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco, Maya Esparza, Sergio Jimenez and Sylvia Arenas — asked supervisors to proceed with “caution and thoughtfulness” as they considered the impact of policy changes on immigrant communities.

They warned that the “decisions can undermine the public safety” county officials seek to provide by “discouraging critically-needed cooperation with law enforcement in diverse communities.”

Several county supervisors expressed their concern with ICE agents and a lack of trust in federal authorities.

Supervisor Dave Cortese said addressing public safety shouldn’t be done at the expense of an immigrant who is racially profiled or wrongfully deported. Supervisor Cindy Chavez added that the lack of transparency on an immigrant’s right to due process contributed to her skepticism.

Supervisor Joe Simitian echoed many of these sentiments, stating that “these issues have been with us for a long time and will be with us for a long time to come.”

“ICE is not the most trustworthy of partners, and we don’t want to undermine the confidence in the larger community that the mostly hands-off policy has helped create,” Simitian said. “It doesn’t mean under certain circumstances we shouldn’t work with them but the due process protections have to be stacked high before I’m willing to have that conversation.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg stood apart from the others, casting the lone vote to leave the existing policy as it stands.

“I don’t believe we need to go back and study this issue,” said Ellenberg. “We want violent criminals prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But we do not and will not have one system of justice for people born here and another for people born anywhere else. Not in Santa Clara County.”

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

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