By Norma Chavez-Peterson
[Editor’s Note: This op-ed was first published on June 8, 2017 to the Voice of San Diego website.]
A few years ago, a San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy walked into a liquor store in Vista to deliver a letter on new synthetic drug policies. He asked the man behind the counter, who received the letter on behalf of the owner, for an ID. And when the clerk produced a Mexican ID card, the deputy called Border Patrol and had the man deported.
Less than two months later, the body of Ildefonso Martinez Sanchez was found on the grounds of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation in Arizona. He was attempting to return home to his wife and five U.S.-born children.
This is just one tragic example of what occurs every day when local police act as deportation agents. Through these types of actions, scores of families are broken up throughout the country, leaving countless more fearful that any interaction with local law enforcement might end in deportation.
Although California has since made strides to ensure local law enforcement agents do not serve as deportation agents, there is still much to be done to keep families together and communities whole.
That is why California legislators must pass Senate Bill 54 by state Sen. Kevin de León to prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from using their limited resources to investigate, detain, report or arrest people for the sole purpose of immigration enforcement.
It’s not difficult to assume that the message received by undocumented immigrants in Vista who heard the sad story of the Martinez family was: Don’t come into contact with local law enforcement. Don’t call them when you’ve been the victim of a crime and don’t call them if you were a witness to a crime. You, too, might end up deported.
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Now, under President Donald Trump’s administration, that is exactly what could happen. Central to his deportation regime is Trump’s plan to force local law enforcement to become part of his deportation dragnet.
Here in San Diego County, most police departments say they don’t go out of their way to ask the immigration status of people they come into contact. But immigration agents have been stationed in county jails for more than a decade.
Local police chiefs, such as San Diego’s Shelley Zimmerman, can say their departments do not check the immigration status of victims of crimes to encourage all people to come forward, but that is not always what happens.
Take the case of Elena Cabrera of Escondido: In 2011, the mother of four called Escondido police when her live-in boyfriend attacked her. Both were taken to the Vista jail. He, a legal resident, was released a few days later. She, an undocumented immigrant, was turned over to immigration agents and put in removal proceedings. Cabrera was lucky because she was able to contact an immigration attorney, and her deportation was averted.
Already the state is seeing the effects of the Trump administration’s immigration plans, according to law enforcement officials.
In a recent Los Angeles Times story, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said reports of sexual assault dropped 25 percent among the city’s Latino population in the beginning of 2017. He said reports of domestic violence also fell 10 percent. He said there was a “strong correlation” between the drop and the panic in the community over ramped-up ICE deportations.
Ramped up immigration enforcement and blurred lines between local police and federal immigration authorities have already broken up too many families. In the future, California must be a shining example for the rest of the country – a place where people feel safe regardless of what they look like, where they come from, or how they speak.
California must draw a bright line between local police and federal immigration agents, making sure victims of crime and witnesses in investigations don’t get deported or refuse to come forward because they fear being deported.
The law would rightly remove immigration agents from jails. We need that in California.
SB 54 is that bright line.
—Norma Chavez-Peterson is executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.