In early July, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore sat down for an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board. Gore, who was appointed sheriff in June after his boss, Bill Kolender, retired, was asked a number of hot-topic questions, among them a request to clarify his department's policy on enforcing federal immigration laws.
Gore told the editorial board that he's “trying to walk the line between being responsible and turning my deputies into immigration officers,” but if deputies come into contact with someone they suspect is in the country illegally, they're authorized to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and “detain them for less than an hour.”
The U-T editorial board found Gore's response troubling enough to publish an editorial prior to the paper publishing the interview. The editorial, which ran on July 12 (the interview wasn't published until July 29) described the sheriff's approach as “problematic.” It went on to say that the paper supports the San Diego Police Department's handling of immigration enforcement. According to SDPD policy, officers “shall not make an effort to look for violations of immigration law.”
Kevin Keenan, executive director of the San Diego and Imperial counties chapter of the ACLU, also found Gore's response troubling. On Aug. 6, Keenan sent Gore a letter.
“Your comments to the Union-Tribune Editorial Board raise concerns that some aspects of the Sheriff's Department's policy on immigration enforcement may be unlawful,” Keenan wrote. “We hope you will clarify departmental policy and assure the community that your deputies will neither detain individuals solely on account of their suspected undocumented status, nor use race as a factor when deciding to question, stop or detain individuals.”
In the letter, Keenan also pointed out that his organization “regularly receives reports that Latinos who are not engaged in any criminal activity are questioned and asked to produce identification by local law enforcement.”
According to a 1987 court ruling, local law-enforcement officers can voluntarily report someone to immigration officials, but federal law forbids them from making an arrest based only on the person's immigration status. Detaining a person for up to an hour, Keenan argued in the letter to Gore, could constitute a violation of federal law.
By press time, Keenan hadn't received a response from Gore—he contacted the Sheriff's Department last week and was told that Gore was out of town. A spokesperson told CityBeat on Tuesday that the department had prepared a written response to the ACLU and would be sending it “in the near future.”
Gore's response to the editorial board is in line with what the sheriff's spokesperson, Jan Caldwell, told CityBeat last year when asked about the department's position on enforcing immigration laws.
“The Sheriff's Department does not have the proper training or resources to act as immigration officers or Border Patrol Agents,” Caldwell said in an e-mail. “If, during the course of our assigned duties, we discover someone in this country illegally, we can hold for a Border Patrol Agent, transport to a Border Patrol facility, or release.”
Bill Flores, a former assistant sheriff and current director of administration for El Grupo, an umbrella organization of civil-rights groups, agrees with Keenan that the sheriff's policy lacks clarity, leaving it too open to interpretation.
“To say that it's confusing would be an understatement,” Flores said. “The way I read it, a sheriff's deputy can do pretty much anything and still be within policy.”
Keenan believes that the policy as “intentionally muddled” for political reasons.
“It allows them to mollify conservatives while having wiggle room to not violate best practices in professional policing,” he said.
“The problem is, deputies also have wiggle room to do immigration enforcement. If they're allowed to form opinions about who is here illegally and don't have any training, they are going to start targeting Latinos and immigrants. If they are allowed to hold people without suspicion of committing a crime, they are going to violate the Fourth Amendment.”
The U-T's editorial board might have wagged a finger at Gore on July 12, but by July 31, a few days after the interview was published, the board inexplicably changed its position, praising the sheriff in an editorial for “striking the right balance” on immigration enforcement. The editorial also noted that Gore “said he believed the San Diego Police Department's policy went too far and didn't allow for enough cooperation with federal authorities” but mentions nothing about the editorial board's previously stated support for the SDPD's policy.
CityBeat e-mailed a member of the editorial board to get an explanation about the change in position but didn't receive an answer by press time.
In May, the Police Foundation, a national nonpartisan organization that evaluates law-enforcement policies and procedures, released a lengthy report looking at the impact of local-level immigration enforcement, ultimately recommending that state and local cops “should be prohibited from arresting and detaining persons to solely investigate immigration status in the absence of probable cause of an independent crime.”
The report also criticized the federal 287(g) program, under which local law-enforcement officers are deputized, and trained, to enforce immigration laws. According to the Police Foundation's summary of findings, “the costs of the 287(g) program outweigh the benefits” and “if a local agency enters the 287(g) program, they should limit participation to serious criminal offenders and jail-based programs.”
While no law-enforcement agencies in San Diego County participate in the 287(g) program, San Diego was among the first to implement an immigration-check program in county jails.
John Morton, assistant secretary of immigration and customs enforcement, who met with reporters in San Diego last week, said ICE is “changing its approach to 287(g) significantly,” focusing on people “who pose a threat to public safety.
“It's not going to be about street-level civil immigration enforcement but, rather, efforts where we partner with state and local law enforcement to go after criminal fugitives—the people we, frankly, ought to be going after together,” Morton said.
Civil-rights groups argue that when local cops engage in street-level immigration enforcement—Flores points to the Escondido Police Department's too-frequent DUI checkpoints that El Grupo has argued double as immigration checks—it erodes trust among immigrant communities, and, as a result, public safety suffers.
“Within the Latino community, you're going to find families where there are family members who are U.S. citizens, there are family members who are legal residents, there are other family members who might be in the country on a temporary visa and other family members who might be in the country without documents,” Flores said. “When a local law-enforcement agency engages in immigration enforcement, it alienates the entire family because it effects the entire family—not only that family, but also their extended family and friends. The confidence level and the trust that that community might have in their local law-enforcement agency begins to erode, and it happens quickly.
“So, while a department may choose to enforce these kinds of deportation orders, what they're risking is a reduction in the effectiveness of their ability to enforce other laws because members of this community won't talk to them, won't call them, won't trust them.”
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.Would you like to your online comment to be considered for publication in our print edition? Include your true full name and neighborhood of residence.