ICE Press Conference

Sheriff Steve Bernal talks to the media on Dec. 18.

In July 2015, 32-year-old Kate Steinle was out for an evening stroll with her father in San Francisco when she was struck by a bullet, and died in her father's arms. 

The shooter was 54-year-old Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an immigrant from Mexico who had been deported five times prior. 

The tragic story became a talking point in the national debate over immigration policy, and whether jurisdictions should take stronger steps to protect people from crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. It also became the impetus in Monterey County for Sheriff Steve Bernal to launch a pilot program about two months later, giving federal agents Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, access to the Monterey County Jail and inmate records. 

“We don’t want things like that to happen here in Monterey County,” Bernal told the Weekly of Steinle's death and his decision to launch the relationship with ICE back in 2015.

Fast forward two and a half years to Nov. 30: A jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of homicide charges, and convicted him only of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

And on Dec. 18, Bernal announced he will end the relationship with ICE in the jail by the end of this week, Dec. 22. 

"ICE will no longer have access to a desk inside of our jail at the end of this week," Bernal told reporters at a press conference Monday morning. 

The timing coincides with resolution to the Steinle case, but that was not the impetus for the change of policy: It was SB 54, California's sanctuary state law, which takes effect Jan. 1

After Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 54 into law—over opposition from the California State Sheriffs’ Association—Bernal began meeting with a group of stakeholders to look at how to comply with the new law. 

The group includes representatives of the ACLU, the Mexican consulate's office, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), county supervisors Luis Alejo and Simon Salinas, as well as representatives of U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta's and Assemblymember Anna Caballero's offices, among others. The group met twice and determined a path forward toward compliance: Lose ICE's seat at the jail. 

“With SB 54, we have to change our policy," Bernal said. "We can’t allow ICE in the jail any longer. 

"What I want to do now is continue to work with all the stakeholders to continue to build trust in the community, and that’s the undocumented community. We have a large population of undocumented residents here in Monterey County and only a small fraction—a very, very small fraction of those are criminals. We want the undocumented community to feel safe coming forward as victims or witnesses of crimes." 

SB 54 prohibits using office space "exclusively dedicated for immigration authorities," suggesting Bernal could have made a case for continuing to allow ICE agents to use the desk—so long as it was not theirs and theirs alone.   

In the first year the policy was in effect, at least 448 individuals were removed from the county jail by ICE officials, and at least one was taken by mistake, ICE told the Weekly last year. People were removed from the jail at a rate 26 times higher than before the policy took effect.

Bernal expressed surprise that community groups opposed the presence of ICE in the jail. It was meant to keep immigration-related arrests out of public areas, he says, and he expects to see more immigration arrests happening in neighborhoods after the jail policy ends this week. 

"If we don't cooperate with ICE, they're going to go out into the community and arrest them anyway," Bernal says. "In the jail, it was a peaceful transfer: They didn't arrest them in front of their family. There wasn't a foot chase or a car chase." 

Bernal expects the stakeholder group that convened to talk about this transition to meet again early next year, and to continue meeting into the future to evaluate how local law enforcement policy is jibing (or not) with the immigrant community. 

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