California Must Sever Law Enforcement from Immigration Enforcement. The Central Valley Shows Us Why.

I live in California’s Central Valley: a richly diverse region, home to nearly a million immigrants, who comprise a quarter of the total population here. Over half of them are noncitizens, of which 300,000 are undocumented.

They hold deep roots in our state, and their labor sustains our nation.

Nearly three quarters of undocumented people in the Valley have lived in the United States for over a decade. On average, 20% of children in the Central Valley live with at least one undocumented parent.

Noncitizen workers, particularly undocumented workers, feed our country. They disproportionately occupy low-wage agriculture jobs in the United States’ largest produce-yielding counties, all located here in the Central Valley: Fresno, Kern, and Tulare.

California passed three pro-immigrant laws over the past decade—the TRUST, TRUTH, and Values Acts—to protect this population from being funneled into the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents through the criminal legal system. Those laws were a response to the fact that ICE has increasingly relied on local law enforcement to transfer people directly to its custody from jail: people who have been granted release, and who would otherwise be returning home to their families, if not for the fact that they are immigrants.

Over the course of four years, the ACLU uncovered documents showing that sheriffs  throughout the Central Valley have in fact worked behind the scenes to evade those laws. They have devised underhanded schemes to transfer people from jails to ICE and avoid the public reporting required under state law.

As detailed in a report published in February, Central Valley sheriffs facilitated the transfer of an estimated 1,000 people to ICE custody since the 2018 enactment of the Values Act, nearly three times higher than the number the sheriffs have officially reported (that number could be even higher due to some sheriffs’ improper interpretation of what constitutes a transfer).

But beyond the statistics and details of the sheriffs’ collusion techniques lie the stories of Central Valley community members who were direct targets of the sheriffs’ abuse of power. They bravely shared their stories with us for our report.

Many common themes run through their stories, but a couple stand out the most: the unscrupulous undermining of the law by government agents who have sworn to uphold it, and the domino effect of harm upon immigrant families.

They demonstrate the very real threat that our communities will continue to face if our legislators do not pass the VISION Act (AB 937) this month: proposed legislation that would sever the link between law enforcement and ICE and prohibit their collusion outright.

Three of those stories  are highlighted here, because they represent the human cost of this continued collusion. They are the reason why we at the ACLU, and other pro-immigrant organizations across the state, are calling upon our legislators to vote for the VISION Act in this final month of the legislative session, and to strengthen legal protections for California immigrants.

Nestor’s Story

Nestor is a father to three daughters in Kern County, where he has lived for over 15 years. In 2018, he was complying with the terms of his probation, dutifully attending all his probation appointments, motivated by his ability to resume life with his daughters following a burglary conviction. However, in September 2018, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office mistakenly arrested him, believing he had missed a probation appointment.

He was forced to sit in jail for two months awaiting a hearing, until the probation department realized its mistake and dismissed the charge. However, as the sheriff’s office processed Nestor out of jail to go home, he was asked to wait inside for over two hours. Jail staff finally released him into the parking lot area. Moments later, ICE agents appeared, questioned Nestor, and arrested him.

ICE detained Nestor at the Mesa Verde Detention Center for over two years. Because of his separation from his family, two of his U.S. citizen daughters were placed in foster care.

Since his release from ICE detention, he has sought to pick up the pieces of his life. He is complying with his release conditions and has regained custody of his daughters.

“My daughters jumped up and down because they were so happy to see me [when I was released from ICE detention]. My youngest daughter had a tough time, she thought I had abandoned them. She thought I left them but I had to explain what happened and now she understands the reason.”

Erika’s Story

Erika has been the primary provider for her three children since kidnappers killed her husband in Mexico.

In 2019, while working in the citrus and almond fields of Kern County, she was falsely accused of stealing a bag of fruit. She was arrested for the alleged theft, then “released” from the sheriff’s custody after paying bail. However, she was not able to return to her family. Two ICE agents were waiting inside the jail. They arrested her and took her to a detention facility.  

She spent six months in immigration detention. Her children did not know where she was  during the first couple of days of her detention. They thought she had been killed, like their father.

In June 2019, she was finally released. Three days later, she went to the Kern County Superior Court to pay a court fee but was arrested for failing to appear at her original court date—despite the fact that she had not been able to attend because she had been in ICE’s custody. The Kern County Sheriff’s Office jailed her again, for 55 days.

Today, Erika is scared to go out in public and becomes anxious at the sight of a police officer.

Nelson’s Story

Nelson is an agricultural worker who has lived in Kings County for over a decade with his wife and four children. For years, he struggled with substance abuse. In 2019, he relapsed after learning of his brother’s death and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance. He was jailed for five months. The charges were dismissed, but he was convicted of violating his probation and a judge ordered him to attend an in-patient substance abuse program.

On the morning of his release, he waited for three hours for a probation officer to take him to the rehabilitation center. Instead, ICE officers arrived, arrested him, and transported him to the Mesa Verde Detention Center.

While in detention, Nelson worried about his family’s wellbeing after hearing that his wife and children were struggling at home. He felt helpless knowing that his children couldn’t fully concentrate at school, and that his wife was navigating the family’s financial situation on her own.

Nelson was released after spending six months in ICE detention, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. He spent two weeks with his family, then checked himself into a substance abuse program. He has since completed the program.

“[If I could speak with lawmakers], I think I would tell them to think of our families. I know I made mistakes and I got myself back into jail but I was also suffering from substance abuse… They should think of our families and the community. They should help people who have immigration-related issues and help them… remain with their families. They should help parents stay with their children. Children are the ones most affected by these types of situations.”

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