Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern fielded questions about immigration Friday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Alameda County does not make arrests on the basis of immigration status, but officials do provide federal authorities with some information about undocumented residents held in the county jail, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern told an emotional crowd at a town hall meeting Friday evening.

Concerns about how the sheriff’s office shares information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) permeated the June 30 event at the Hayward Adult School, which drew more than 200 people. As those in attendance questioned and criticized some of Ahern’s policies, the tenor of the meeting grew increasingly antagonistic. The town hall was organized by the ACLU’s grassroots offshoot People Power.

Like Berkeley, the sheriff’s office does not honor immigration detention requests from ICE, Ahern told those gathered. The office does, however, respond to ICE’s “requests for notification” — requests for information about non-citizens in county custody, including the inmate’s expected release date. ICE learns about these inmates through fingerprints provided to the federal government during the booking process. (Under ICE’s controversial Secure Communities program, those fingerprints are checked against federal immigration databases.)

The sheriff’s policy says the county may provide ICE with information about the release of undocumented inmates even when the federal agency does not request it.

At the beginning of the town hall, the sheriff butted heads with panelist Julia Mass, an ACLU attorney who said the sheriff’s office is not legally obligated to provide this information.

“The federal law that you cited prohibits counties from adopting rules that say individual officers can’t share information with ICE, but it doesn’t in any way require the county to provide information to ICE…It doesn’t talk about release dates,” she said. She said some neighboring jurisdictions do not comply with ICE’s requests.

Ahern said his legal counsel had told him the county could lose federal funding if it ignored ICE’s requests for notification.

Attendees expressed disdain for the sheriff’s policies through both vocal and silent methods. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Attendees expressed disdain for the sheriff’s policies through both vocal and silent methods. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

During the bulk of the event, Ahern took questions and responded to criticism from attendees, who formed a long line to address him. Ahern, a supporter of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has proposed harsher punishments for undocumented immigration, repeatedly said there is simply a fundamental difference between his beliefs and those of the people in attendance at the town hall.

“We disagree that no one should be deported,” he said. “I believe that people who are evil and committing violent crimes and harming our communities should go in front of a deportation hearing.”

The sheriff’s policies do not affect undocumented people arrested on misdemeanors, Ahern said. People booked on suspicion of misdemeanor offenses are usually released from the jail before officials can even respond to an ICE request, he said. Those who are suspected of committing felonies are held longer, which could give ICE time to request their release dates and detain them.

Some in the audience immediately challenged the idea that felons are the only people targeted by the sheriff’s policy. Since the county sends all detainees’ fingerprints to ICE when they are first arrested, federal officers can find out about all undocumented inmates and could come looking for someone suspected of committing a low-level offense, they said.

“It’s possible that ICE could take somebody out of our jail that had been arrested for a misdemeanor, and that’s incumbent upon them — it’s not because we notify them,” Ahern said.

A number of people made emotional pleas to the sheriff, imploring him to stop “tearing families apart” and telling him kids in the community are scared.

More than 200 people spent their Friday evenings at the immigration town hall. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Ahern said his office has worked diligently to support young people with all sorts of immigration statuses. Many kids in the county happily participate in the Deputy Sheriff’s Activities League, a free recreation program, he said.

“We have Hispanic dance classes with people that are undocumented. They’re not scared,” Ahern said. “I’m not telling you that there are not people that are frightened, and they’re frightened because of their immigration status. However, we are building trust in this community, and we’re doing our best in that vein.”

At times, interactions between Ahern and the members of the public at the town hall became confrontational. Responding to boos and cries of “Shame!,” Ahern told the audience to “calm down,” referring to them as “your little group.”

A young woman who implied that her brother had been killed by police ended her comment by telling the sheriff, “Fuck you.”

“Mutual,” Ahern retorted.

One attendee said he felt he had achieved a small victory when speaking with the sheriff.

Michael Goldstein of Oakland asked the sheriff if he would update his policy to specifically prohibit county officials from asking anyone to disclose their immigration status. Ahern had said it is already the practice of his office to refrain from such inquiries, but the policy does not explicitly prohibit them. Ahern agreed to change the policy, and told another speaker he would take a look at her proposal to prohibit the county from notifying ICE about people in custody for civil offenses.

“It felt big, and he really surprised me,” Goldstein said.

Although much of the room cleared out around 7 p.m., when the town hall was scheduled to end, the sheriff said he would continue the event as long as there were people there to talk to him, and it went on more than 45 minutes longer.

Berkeley works to strengthen sanctuary city status

Since the beginning of the year, a large task force has been working to strengthen Berkeley’s commitment to protecting its undocumented residents.

City officials at a November 2016 press conference on Berkeley’s sanctuary city status. Photo: Tracey Taylor
City officials at a November 2016 press conference on Berkeley’s sanctuary city status. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley first passed a “sanctuary” resolution in 1971, at the time forbidding city staff from enforcing federal law against Vietnam War draft resistance, and the landmark policy was later used by the city and many others to protect immigrants and refugees. Shortly after the November 2016 election, responding to fear in the community and President Donald Trump’s threats to withhold funding from sanctuary cities, the Berkeley City Council reaffirmed Berkeley’s sanctuary city status. The Berkeley School Board also adopted a policy protecting undocumented students in December 2016.

The fear has not subsided since the election. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would slash federal funds for sanctuary cities that do not comply with ICE. Berkeley receives around $11.5 million in federal funding, which goes to social services, including housing programs, supportive care, and emergency shelter and health services.

In January, the 2×2 Committee, consisting of City Council and School Board members, came up with the idea to create a joint working group to “address this new potential for a threat,” said Brandi Campbell, the mayor’s chief of staff. The new task force is made up of city staff, representatives from BUSD, UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College, local immigrant rights advocates, religious leaders and others.

The task force is working on two projects, Campbell said. One group is working to establish a rapid response network in Berkeley, where residents can call on volunteers to accompany them to immigration hearings or otherwise support them. The city is working with existing response networks in the Bay Area, to “plug into” county-level infrastructure and likely tap People Power to facilitate the Berkeley iteration, Campbell said.

The task force is also examining the law on sanctuary places, like churches or restaurants. The goal is to create a toolkit that could be shared nationally, Campbell said, but the task has proven more challenging than expected as immigration warrants have changed this year.

One of the first tangible products to come out of the new effort is a set of pamphlets listing immigration resources and explaining city policies. A more detailed update to the current sanctuary city resolution, laying out specific protocols, will be on the council agenda on July 25, Campbell said.

“We’re doing all that we can to not be part of this system,” she said.

Berkeley’s is among other current efforts to strengthen sanctuary protections. In April, the California Senate passed SB54, a bill that would restrict local and state police cooperation with ICE.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...