Slippery ICE

Sheriff Steve Bernal has granted federal agents full access to the jail and its records as part of a new “pilot program.”

Nic Coury

Roxana Mebel and Luis Ortiz never wanted their three children to live in fear like they did in Mexico. But in the last month, that is what happened.

Ortiz was taken from his family and sent back to Mexico on Sept. 14 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Ortiz was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, but no charges were ever filed against him.

“He is not coming back, it is too hard now,” Mebel says in Spanish. “And we can’t go back. We agreed to give better opportunities to our children.”

Ortiz had no criminal record, but had a prior contact with ICE. Because charges were never filed in his case, he was eligible to be released from custody under the current Monterey County Jail policy implemented in May 2014 under former Sheriff Scott Miller.

Under that policy, ICE detainers were not to be honored, meaning federal agents were not called to the jail to deport people.

But that changed six weeks ago, when Sheriff Steve Bernal quietly launched a “pilot program” allowing federal agents to operate inside the county jail and look for deportable inmates.

The county Board of Supervisors had no chance to weigh in on the decision. Supervisor Jane Parker says she only became aware of the situation when a resident approached her.

Getting information from the sheriff, she says, has proven difficult.

“There is something wrong here if I can’t get the information that I should,” Parker says. “It has not been easy to get information over the past two weeks and people have approached me with concerns.”

Defense attorneys were surprised when suddenly, some of their clients – including ones accused of nonviolent offenses – were not allowed to post bail. In July, sheriff’s officials told attorneys no policy change was on the horizon.

Now, ICE agents are granted access to the jail and jail records between 6am and midnight, Monday through Friday, Bernal says.

He says the decision came in light of the fatal shooting of a woman at a popular tourist destination in San Francisco, allegedly by a man with a criminal record and an immigration hold that was not honored. The killing sparked a national political debate on immigration, and convinced Bernal that allowing ICE agents inside the jail was the best way to “not let criminal aliens slip through the cracks.

“We don’t want things like that to happen here in Monterey County,” he says.

Prior to the change, Bernal says the number of deportations was “probably very low,” about one person deported every three weeks.

Since the change six weeks ago, at least 85 undocumented immigrants have been deported. Thirty-one percent of those were previously convicted of an “aggravated felony” or two or more felonies. The rest, Bernal says, were deported by ICE agents for having “serious misdemeanors” or more than three misdemeanors.

But in the case of Luis Ortiz, Bernal would not comment. He said he was not aware that people with no criminal background were being deported by ICE agents at the jail.

ICE tactics have also raised questions. Santa Cruz-based immigration attorney Michael Mehr says federal agents’ behavior is “disturbing,” adding that two of his clients have been arrested at or near the Monterey County Superior Courthouse when they were attempting to make scheduled court appearances.

“[One client] was arrested at the security checkpoint, arrested by ICE and removed even though there was a criminal case pending and no one was notified,” Mehr says.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman with ICE, would not disclose whether federal agents are following the updated guidelines regarding enforcement action at or near courthouses. But she also refused to say what those guidelines are, citing “law enforcement sensitivities.” In more than a year, Kice has not heard of “purported arrests in proximity to courthouses,” she writes by email.

State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, calls the sudden enforcement actions “outrageous” and says issues of fundamental due process under the U.S. Constitution are at play.

“We have a system where everyone is entitled to due process when charged with a crime,” Monning says. “You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen.”

Mebel says one of her daughters is being bullied at school by kids who say her father abandoned her.

“But I tell her that unfortunately, a law took her dad away and that he did not leave her by choice,” Mebel says.

Bernal says he plans to meet with attorneys and community members in a couple of weeks to receive input on the new jail policy, which he plans to re-create from scratch.

Kice says enforcement policies are constantly being re-sevaluated to ensure agents focus on “those who represent the greatest threats to national security, public safety and border security.”

But whether Ortiz represented a threat is highly debatable, considering he was never charged for the suspected DUI. He was an undocumented immigrant without a criminal past, worked as a painter and was his family’s sole provider.

Mebel says she is now looking for a job to afford the $800 one-bedroom apartment near agricultural fields in South Salinas. But because she is also undocumented, she is “paralyzed with fear,” she says, because if she is deported, her kids – ages 10, 5 and 4 – would be left alone.

“It’s really not OK,” she says. “In the end, the children are the ones who suffer the consequences.”

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