Sheriff Steve Bernal

Sheriff Steve Bernal says his office is not enforcing immigration law, but has allowed immigration agents to operate inside jail.

For the first time since allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to set up shop at the jail, Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal publicly shared the details behind his decision with the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.

On Oct. 14, the BOS received a letter from Bernal that said he initiated a pilot program in mid-August, which authorizes immigration agents to work inside the jail to look for individuals who have been flagged as a priority for deportation.

The program operates under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). The intent, he says, is to "to prevent the release of inmates who are considered threats to public safety."

"Let me be clear," Bernal says. "My office is not enforcing immigration law. We are not collaborating with ICE out in the community with immigration matters and no member of the Sheriff's Office will detain or arrest a member of the community based on the person's immigration status."

Bernal writes in his letter he consulted the move with County Counsel prior to taking part in PEP, but several county officials expressed their concern about being left in the dark on the issue, including Supervisor Fernando Armenta who said he would request a briefing form Bernal on the pilot program upon becoming aware of the change two months later.

According to the letter, County Counsel told Bernal he was acting legally and not violating the Trust Act, but Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, says this move "undermines the spirit of the CA Trust Act" and that he will be meeting with Bernal in the next couple of weeks to ensure there are no violations to the law. By not honoring immigration holds on inmates past their sentences, Bernal says he is in compliance with the law. 

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But immigration agents are still allowed inside the jail between 6am and midnight on weekdays and have their own desk. Bernal says they do not have "unescorted access throughout the jail" and adds agents have access to jail records that would normally be shared with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

"Nothing more or nothing less," Bernal told the Weekly earlier this week.

The goal, Bernal says, is for immigration agents to identify individuals who have had a prior contact with ICE, felony convictions, serious misdemeanors or more than 3 misdemeanors on their criminal record. Once their sentences are done, ICE agents deport them.

"We are not holding any inmate past their release date and we are not releasing inmates earlier for ICE," Bernal says. "In fact, all inmates, regardless of their status under PEP, are released at the same time."

Bernal says he is not honoring ICE detainers, meaning that if ICE agents are not at the jail and an inmate eligible for deportation finished his sentence, jail staff will release him or her from custody. The jail's policy of not honoring ICE detained was implemented by former Sheriff Scott Miller in May 2014. Prior to 2014, jail staff would honor ICE immigration holds.

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