San Francisco Sheriff 'Embarrassed' Jail Broke California's Sanctuary Law
By Hamed Aleaziz
The San Francisco Sheriff's Department allowed federal immigration officers into one of its jails to interview an inmate, a violation of jail policy and California sanctuary law, department officials said Monday.
Department policy broadly restricts cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, forbidding most communication with the agency and barring access to inmates, some of whom the government would like to detain for potential deportation.
The goal of sanctuary policies, which conservatives and the Trump administration have called dangerous, is to convince undocumented immigrants that they can engage with local authorities without fear that their legal status will be an issue.
But Thursday, sheriff's officials said, a pair of ICE officers entered separate San Francisco jails, requested to speak with two inmates, and were given access to interview rooms. While one inmate declined to speak with ICE, another inmate participated in the interview.
The inmate who was interviewed had been informed by the Sheriff's Department that ICE was seeking to detain him upon his release from jail. But San Francisco's citywide sanctuary ordinance does not allow inmates to be turned over to ICE in most cases.
In an interview Monday, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said the department's policy had been in place before her 2015 election. She said it appeared ICE was "testing our defenses and they found some weak points." The incident is under investigation, she said.
"My staff made a mistake and I have to hold myself accountable," she said. "I apologize on behalf of the department. I feel embarrassed by it. I've taken steps to make sure it never happens again."
It's not clear what was discussed in the interview, and the inmate was not identified. The incident came one week after a four-day ICE sweep in Northern California, which netted 232 arrests and was designed to counter sanctuary laws.
The interview appeared to be a violation of California's Truth Act, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, said Pratheepan Gulasekaram, a professor and immigration expert at Santa Clara University School of Law.
The law mandates that before any interview between ICE and a county jail inmate, a consent form be provided describing the reasoning for the interview, that the interview is voluntary and that an attorney can be present.
"Either what's happened here is a deliberate opposition to San Francisco's non-cooperation policy by sheriff's deputies, or ignorance of that policy," he said, "and ICE doing what it does, which is to attempt to take advantage of that ignorance."
The Sheriff's Department did not provide the inmate with a consent form, officials said, because its policy doesn't allow ICE officers to have access at all.
After learning of the interview, Hennessy reiterated the policy to leaders in the jail, and issued a department-wide bulletin on the matter, said Nancy Crowley, a department spokeswoman.
"Sheriff's Department watch commanders are communicating this directive at muster at each of three daily shifts for one week," Crowley said.
Jeff Adachi, the city's public defender, said the man who was interviewed was a client of his office. He said the officers asked the man questions about his background and nationality and tried to get him to sign a form.
The office is trying to figure out what the form was and determine whether the inmate signed it, Adachi said. He said the inmate does not read English or Spanish.
"How sheriff's deputies are not aware of our sanctuary policies is quite frankly beyond me," Adachi said.
He said he informed Hennessy of the visit last week and was assured that the problem would be addressed.
ICE sent 99 requests for San Francisco to hold or turn over undocumented inmates in 2016, and 469 requests in 2017, city records show. Already in 2018, the city has received 212 such requests. None has been honored.
The ICE officers returned to a San Francisco jail on Monday and requested another inmate interview, Crowley said, but they were denied access after being informed of the department's policy.
"That's a good sign," Hennessy said.
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