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Arturo Venegas, Jr. Headshot

The Buck Stops Here: How the LA County Sheriff's Participation in Immigration Enforcement is Hurting Community Policing and Public Safety

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For the last few years, I have been engaging fellow law enforcement leaders in a dialogue about sensible immigration reform. Immigration is an issue that affects our work as cops on a daily basis. But, sometimes I'm asked whether the fact that law enforcement is engaged in immigration enforcement really has an impact on victims or witnesses coming forward or not. The tragedy of sexual abuse of school children at Miramonte Elementary School, a part of the Los Angeles Unified School district and located in a largely poor Latino neighborhood, has, sadly, answered that question once and for all.

The case involves two longtime teachers at the school who were arrested for committing lewd acts toward a number of students in disturbing instance of sexual abuse that occurred over several years. Many of the students at Miramonte and/or their parents are undocumented immigrants. Last week as the abuse story was unfolding, parents at the school told the Associated Press that they were afraid to talk to the police about the case because they feared deportation through the "Secure Communities" program. Alejandra Manuel, the mother of a student in one of the accused teacher's class, said "We're afraid to speak with the Sheriff and be deported. Anything can happen." The mother added, "We don't even want to go to the meetings at the school because they're full of police." (Translation is mine.)

The school falls within an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County that is patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff's Office (LASO). Sheriff Lee Baca has long been a supporter of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) programs that target undocumented immigrants. One such program was the 287g that operated in the jail. Under an agreement between LASO and ICE, his personnel were trained to do interviews of people arrested, and if the officers discovered that the person was unauthorized to be in the country, they would refer them to ICE for deportation proceedings. The Sheriff later had a spat with ICE when ICE changed the 287g agreements without consulting him and he refused to operate under the new agreement.

However, when ICE began implementing the other program, Secure Communities (S-Comm), the Sheriff was one of the first in line in California to make the program happen. The S-Comm program takes the fingerprints of everyone booked into jail and sends them to ICE. ICE then evaluates them and determines whether or not to request a detainer on the person, which often times ends up in the deportation of the individual.

The 287g program is in place in only about 70 agencies nationwide, while Secure Communities will be in place across the entire country by next year. 287g has always been voluntary and Secure Communities started out the same, but ICE announced last year that it will be mandatory and the Sheriff has been one of the program's strongest proponents. S-Comm was supposed to be a program to target the most serious of offenders, but the figures of those arrested, processed and deported, tell a different story. In fact, the majority of people deported through S-Comm have either committed only a minor offense or no crime at all.

ICE and the Sheriff would tell you that the program has identified quite a few serious criminals. What they fail to acknowledge is that these offenders would have been identified any way through other programs and processes in place. What they don't want to acknowledge is that this program has been an inexpensive way (since the counties, not the federal government, pay for detaining the immigrants) for ICE to claim that the Administration is being tough on immigration enforcement, and to rapidly increase deportations. Since this Administration took over in 2009, deportations have been higher than any previous administration. But the negative impact on families, police-community relations and community policing, that has proven to be a significant asset in reducing crime and violence across our country, have been enormous. And, when a victim or a witness fears the police, the whole community suffers. This is why every major law enforcement association has taken a position in favor of limiting local participation in immigration enforcement. The Major Cities Chiefs Association, assessed the issue, stating, "without assurances that contact with the police would not result in purely civil immigration enforcement action, the hard won trust, communication and cooperation from the immigrant community would disappear."

This point could not be better illustrated than by the cases at Miramonte Elementary School. The number of cases is mind-boggling and many of the parents are fearful of coming forward for fear they will be discovered by ICE and deportation action taken against them. Are the arrested teachers guilty or sexual predators? That's for the prosecution and the courts to determine, but they need victims and witnesses willing to come forward. For the criminal cases to be properly investigated and prosecuted it's simply not an option to have victims or witnesses fear to come forward. The sad state of affairs is that they may very well end up with victims and witnesses afraid to come forward and help prosecute child sexual abuse cases, due to the Sheriff's unwavering and vocal support of ICE's flawed immigration enforcement programs.