The Vista Detention facility. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

One of the most common outcries from those who oppose the California Values Act – or the so-called “sanctuary state” law – is that the law returns deportable criminals into California communities.

It’s a claim being given a national megaphone by County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who’s led the county’s opposition to the law.

“In San Diego alone, the inability of our local law enforcement to communicate with immigration authorities has resulted since January in 384 criminals out of our jails, back out into the community,” Gaspar said during a Fox Business appearance earlier this month. (A Gaspar spokeswoman later told Voice of San Diego the supervisor misspoke, and should have said 347 individuals, not 384, were not released to ICE after serving time in a local jail.)

The California Values Act has become central to an immigration battle between the Trump administration and California, both as its constitutionality is being litigated in court and its impact is being used as a political public safety talking point in the president’s tweets and during a White House roundtable last week.

The law limits cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials. Gaspar and other critics of the measure are seizing on a provision in the law that says local law enforcement can only notify Immigrations and Customs Enforcement of the release date of an unauthorized immigrant in their custody if that person has committed one of about 800 crimes listed in the law.

Indeed, since the law went into effect, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department has notified ICE of the release dates for unauthorized immigrants in its custody less than it has in previous years. But those not being picked up by ICE upon their release from county jails aren’t the murderous gang members critics of the measure often suggest the law is protecting, but rather individuals who’ve committed a misdemeanor, such as driving under the influence or public intoxication.

Between Jan. 1 and mid-May, the Sheriff’s Department received 605 notification requests from ICE for individuals held in the sheriff’s custody.

Of those requests, 256 individuals met the criteria laid out in the California Values Act for when the Sheriff’s Department can notify ICE of an impending release. The remaining 349 did not meet the criteria, and their release date was not provided to ICE by the Sheriff’s Department – though the information on all inmates pending release, including release dates, is posted online.

The Sheriff’s Department said 172 individuals were picked up by ICE after being released from custody.

ICE sends requests to the San Diego Sheriff’s Department for people in the department’s custody. If the person has been convicted of one of the crimes listed in the California Values Act, which includes all serious and violent felonies, or if the person was also convicted of a misdemeanor in the past five years or a felony in the past 15 years, the Sheriff’s Department can notify ICE of their release date.

The three most common charges among individuals who were released from sheriff’s custody in 2018 without the department notifying ICE of their release date were DUI-related charges, disorderly conduct/public intoxication and domestic violence, all misdemeanors.

The Sheriff’s Department seems like it is on track to notify ICE of fewer individuals’ release dates than it did last year – the first year of the Trump administration, before the California Values Act went into effect.

In 2017, the Sheriff’s Department received 1,307 ICE notification requests. ICE was notified of the release of 1,143 those individuals, who were then picked up by ICE after their release from custody.

Five months into 2018, the Sheriff’s Department has notified ICE for less than a fourth of the number of people than they did last year.

The ICE San Diego field office, which oversees operations in San Diego and Imperial counties, made 2,824 arrests of individuals with prior criminal records in 2017 – the number of individuals picked up by ICE after being released from Sheriff’s Department custody that year equals about 40 percent of that number. (Note: ICE provides data in fiscal years beginning in October, but Voice of San Diego analyzed the data for calendar years 2017 and 2018 beginning in January to better compare it to the Sheriff’s Department data provided.)

Between January and March 2018, ICE arrested 639 individuals with prior criminal convictions in San Diego and Imperial counties. That’s a slight lag from the 719 criminal immigrant arrests made during the same three-month period last year.

Some of those criminal immigration arrests come from local jails in the two counties, but not all. ICE has conducted at least two multi-day operations in San Diego County in 2018, where it targeted many individuals who have prior criminal histories or deportations, and arrested them at their homes or in other locations.

ICE’s criminal arrests don’t only include people who have committed crimes like robberies or assaults in the United States, but also those who only have federal immigration-related convictions, like illegal re-entry for entering the United States after being previously deported.

There’s also been a 50 percent increase in non-criminal arrests – meaning arrests of unauthorized immigrants without any prior criminal convictions – between January and March 2017 and the same three-month period this year. So far this year, 72 more people have been arrested by ICE than at the same time in 2017, before the California Values Act passed.

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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