Downey: Immigration enforcement is not sheriff’s job

Thank you, Mary Ann, for the “heads up” on this important news story from the Times-Standard this morning regarding Sheriff Downey’s stand on immigration law in the Humboldt County Sheriff’s office.

Jim, more support for your letter tonight at Ferndale’s City Council meeting.

Sheriff Mike Downey on Tuesday said his office would leave it to federal agents to enforce immigration laws in Humboldt County.

“Enforcement of immigration laws is not the job of the Sheriff and my office does not and will not conduct proactive or reactive immigration enforcement duties in this community,” Downey wrote in an open letter. “Our (No. 1) priority is to investigate crime and make our community safe.”

Downey said his office recognized the need to talk with federal agents, but said his deputies don’t intend to enforce immigration law.

“I acknowledge the necessity of communicating with all federal law enforcement regarding dangerous criminals booked into county jails,” Downey wrote. “This need arises from a desire to protect all members of our community from those who pose a credible public safety threat, not from a desire to enforce immigration law on a day-to-day basis.”

The sheriff added that he hoped to encourage county residents, regardless of their immigration status, to continue to report crimes.

Undersheriff William Honsal added separately that the office had stopped complying with Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold undocumented immigrants in the county jail. 

“In the past, we may have held people, but don’t do it anymore,” Honsal said, adding that the office adopted its policy before state legislators passed the Trust Act in 2014 to limit so-called immigration holds.

According to Honsal, deputies will still work with federal immigration enforcement agents whenever they are required by law to do so or by the order of a federal warrant. 

Honsal added that in some special circumstances, deputies have reached out to ICE agents for help on criminal investigations.

Pointing to a case earlier this year in Fortuna, Honsal said the Humboldt County Drug Task Force — local law enforcement — reached out to federal agents for a translator to help them confront suspects they believed were trafficking drugs including methamphetamine and heroin. The suspects were undocumented immigrants, according to Honsal.

“These were people that we wanted to take off the street so we solicited their help — ICE — to try to try to do something,” Honsal said, clarifying that local law enforcement asked for help only after federal agents said they were available to translate. 

“This is not something that happens every day,” Honsal said. “The timing was perfect and it did work; and they didn’t round up anyone or any witnesses.” 

Renee Saucedo with El Centro Del Pueblo, an immigrants’ rights organization in Humboldt County, said she was encouraged by the sheriff’s announcement.

“It is a positive sign that the sheriff does not wish to play the role of federal immigration agents,” Saucedo said. “But it still has a ways to go because there is collaboration with immigration enforcement.”

Saucedo said reports in local immigrant communities of deputies working with federal agents, even just to translate, are taken poorly.

“We hope and are willing to work with the sheriff so current collaborations, unless mandated, stop so local immigration communities feel safe,” Saucedo said.

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