The Escondido police and fire headquarters / Photo by Genevieve Prentice

By the first week in February, the Escondido Police Department must decide whether to accept a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. To get it, the department had to agree to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement – something in conflict with California state law.

Or maybe it’s not in conflict at all. Escondido’s police chief said they could comply with the federal government demands without violating state laws intended to restrict cooperation with immigration enforcement.

It once again raises the question of how exactly local cities, and even California itself, can insulate undocumented residents from the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement with the loss of federal money. But one federal law enforcement grant may show that cities, like Escondido, can comply with the Trump Administration’s wishes without breaking state law.

California’s laws protecting undocumented immigrants from immigration enforcement when they interact with local police have so many gray areas and exceptions that police departments may be able to simultaneously cooperate with federal immigration agents, while not violating any state mandates.

The Community Oriented Policing Services grant would award $250,000 to Escondido to hire two full-time officers for three years.

In September 2017,  Escondido Police Chief Craig Carter and Mayor Sam Abed signed a “Certification of Illegal Immigration Cooperation” and filed it with their application for the grant.

The document states that, if awarded, before the agency draws upon the grant funds, it “will implement rules, regulations, policies, and/or practices that ensure that U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel have access to any of the governing body’s correctional or detention facilities in order to meet with an alien (or an individual believed to be an alien) and inquire as to his or her right to be or to remain in the United States.”

The document further stipulates that before an agency accepts the money, they also need to implement policies or practices to ensure DHS is notified of the release date and time of an undocumented immigrant who is in the jurisdiction’s custody.

The department still hasn’t decided whether to accept the grant, Carter said. He is not sure he can afford the matching grant the Justice Department is requiring.

“For me, I have to determine whether it’s worth spending half a million to get a quarter million,” Carter said. “At the end of the grant, I need to be able to keep those individuals employed. I don’t want to hire a police officer and have to let them go after a few years because of the budget.”

The two officers would focus on community outreach, diverting juvenile offenders, enhancing homeless outreach efforts and trying to reduce recidivism, according to the department’s application.

Carter said if the department accepts the grant, it won’t be in violation of California laws that govern interactions between local police and undocumented immigrants, like the California Values Act, or SB54, which was signed into law by the governor in October.

The cooperation certification was signed weeks before that bill became law.

The illegal immigration cooperation document specifically talks about undocumented immigrants in corrections and detention facilities, Carter said. Since the Escondido Police Department has no such facilities of its own that it operates, those terms are not relevant, he said.

The county operates local jails. And the county sheriff has determined that while the new state law means immigration agents cannot have permanent offices in the jails, they will still have access to them. The Escondido Police Department is abiding by the law and no longer has ICE agents permanently housed in its offices, Carter said.

He also said it’s going to be up to the state and federal government to square away how California laws interact with federal grants, like the Community Oriented Policing Services grant.

“That’s out of my control,” he said. “The federal government and state are going to have to come together and figure out how to align those two things. Sacramento tries to do the right thing, but you can never write law or legislate things that deal with every scenario.”

Indeed, gray areas remain in the implementation of the California Values Act, such as how to disentangle local law enforcement from federal when it comes to joint task forces or database-sharing.

When the agencies selected for the award were announced in November, the Department of Justice’s press release said 80 percent of the program’s grantees had agreed to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in their detention facilities.

“I applaud their commitment to the rule of law and to ending violent crime, including violent crime stemming from illegal immigration,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the statement.

Escondido wasn’t the only police department in the state selected. Seven other agencies received awards, including the Sacramento Police Department, which got the highest sum in the state of $1.875 million.

In total, the DOJ has offered up more than $4 million to the state through these grants.

Maria Romani, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in California, said it’s unclear whether what’s laid out in the certification are the only ways of cooperating with immigration enforcement under the terms of the grant agreement, Romani said.

And what’s in the document itself may not be out of line with state law, either, Romani said. For example, local police departments can release the information of an undocumented individual in custody to ICE if they’ve been convicted of one of a list of hundreds of crimes.

“Once we found out there was a certification that allowed for entanglement between police departments and ICE, that is what sent a red flag to us,” she said. “I haven’t received anything yet to indicate there is a violation. We’re going to have to keep a close eye on it.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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