Police in Northern California's Daly City handed a local man over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, apparently contravening the state's so-called sanctuary provisions, which are designed to protect undocumented Californians from deportation by barring local authorities from collaborating with federal immigration agents. Now faced with possible prosecution by the state, the Daly City Police Department appears to be reversing course, asking immigration officials to release the detained immigrant, who remains in ICE custody, immigration authorities tell Pacific Standard.
Daly City police arrested Jose Armand Escobar-Lopez in May, in a traffic stop on Escobar-Lopez's way home from church. Arresting officers would not tell him why he was stopped, says Escobar-Lopez's attorney Angela Chan, a policy director and senior attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus. Instead they inquired about his immigration status and brought him into the station where they notified and handed him over to ICE agents, Chan says.
The California Values Act, SB 54, bars cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents in a way that would make the local authorities active enforcers of immigration law. The degree of penalties for failing to comply with the law are not immediately clear from the bill's text, but experts say that local law enforcement failing to comply with the law would face possible prosecution by the state attorney general.
SB 54 "prohibits local law enforcement from stopping community members for immigration purposes, asking them about their immigration status, and holding them for ICE," Chan says. "This state Sanctuary law also limits notifications to ICE as to when an individual will be released and transfers to ICE. The Daly City Police Department violated all of these provisions under the law so they have opened themselves up to liability."
The Daly City Police Department did not respond to Pacific Standard's request for comment at time of publication. But federal authorities say Daly City is now trying to secure Escobar-Lopez's release. "The Daly City Police Chief did recently submit a letter requesting ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) San Francisco to release Escobar from our custody," Paul Prince, a San Francisco and Northern California spokesman for Department of Homeland Security Investigations & Enforcement and Removal Operations, writes in an email. "ICE ERO has not made any determination in this matter at this time."
It remains unclear whether Daly City and its law enforcement will face legal repercussions for alleged contraventions of the Values Act. The office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Experts say that, even if the state chose to prosecute Daly City officers, the city authorities may ultimately prevail. "State rules must usually yield to federal laws and regulations" on immigration enforcement, explains John S.W. Park, an Asian American studies professor at University of California–Santa Barbara and author of Immigration Law and Society.
Escobar-Lopez's case is not the first potential contravention of the California Values Act by the state's law enforcement units. Although Chan has no estimate of the current alleged violations in California's Bay Area, she says that her organization is "representing community members in a number of cases of SB 54 violations in the Bay Area, including violations committed by the Alameda Sheriff's Department and the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department." Chan could not speak in further detail about those instances of pending litigation.
Chan says she is in talks with Daly City authorities to amend what she identified as a number of policies that allow for local police to assist ICE in a way that she says violates the Values Act. One policy explicitly allows the department to "assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws with approval from the chief of police" and another encourages the department to refer the public to ICE to report alleged immigration law violations, for example.
Immigration law experts are in agreement that the police department's treatment of Escobar-Lopez's case ran afoul of the law. "The cooperation of the Daly City police officer with ICE is a clear violation of California's Values Act," says Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and migration studies at the University of San Francisco. "The incident reveals either a lack of training by the Daly City police department or an intentional violation of the law by the officer. What happened demonstrates the need for better training of all law enforcement officials in California in the requirements of the Values Act."
Other experts agree that if Daly City police violated state law it is likely because many police officers have not been trained on compliance with the sanctuary policy. "Unfortunately, [Escobar-Lopez's case] is not uncommon: Many local law enforcement officers don't know or haven't been trained on the state's sanctuary law, and even when they have been trained, some officers generally believe that they ought to report all immigrants who appear out of status," Park says.
Nonetheless, despite the lack of formal police training, the Values Act has been effective in reducing the number of ICE detentions and deportations in California, according to a report Chan's organization released together with Oxford University earlier this year. In the first five months of 2018, implementation of SB 54 led to a 24 percent decrease in overall ICE arrests in California and a 41 percent decrease in ICE arrests at local jails compared with the last five months of 2017.
"However, this reduction in deportations can be furthered if more local law enforcement agencies complied in good faith to SB 54," Chan says. She adds that her organization's analysis found that about 40 percent of 169 sheriffs and police departments were failing to comply with SB 54.
The standoff over Escobar-Lopez's case and other alleged violations of the California Values Act comes amid a broader debate on the degree to which local authorities should be allowed to cooperate with federal immigration officials. The Trump administration has found itself at odds with states like California over sanctuary protections barring cooperation between local police and federal immigration agents. Defenders of sanctuary policies frequently brandish a 2012 Supreme Court case, Arizona v. United States, in which the justices overturned an Arizona law requiring local police departments to aid immigration agents. The majority found that, even by assisting immigration agents, local police had overstepped the scope of their authority by interfering in a matter of federal jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court, now significantly reshaped by two Trump administration appointees, is set to hear another case, Kansas v. Garcia, that could drastically change the precedent set by the 2012 ruling and encourage federal and local authorities to work together to deport immigrants.
While the nation's top court decides on those cooperations, Escobar-Lopez remains locked up at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, California, and faces deportation to his birth country of El Salvador.