Hundreds of protesters greeted the country’s top immigration enforcement official Tuesday during a Sacramento stop that inflamed passions over the Trump administration’s hardline stance on refugees and undocumented immigrants.
The public forum held at the Sacramento County Youth Gym was billed as Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan’s first ever public event leading the enforcement agency known as ICE. Homan came at the invitation of Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.
Protesters, including officials such as Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, condemned the administration’s policies with speeches, chants and songs. The protest outside the gym stayed peaceful as law enforcement patrolled on mountain bike and motorcycle, and a sheriff’s helicopter circled overhead.
Once the forum got underway, however, protesters booed and yelled at both Homan and Jones, with Steinberg attempting to keep the peace. Several protesters were escorted out of the forum by deputies after yelling at the speakers. Some attendees also showed their support of Jones and the Trump administration.
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Homan told the roiling crowd, “We don’t conduct neighborhood sweeps. We don’t do it,” while also saying agents do go into private homes to detain undocumented immigrants who are threats. Jones, for his part, told the crowd he felt “a tremendous amount of empathy” for undocumented immigrants and assured them “we don’t and never will enforce immigration laws.”
The first-of-its-kind forum drew the national immigration debate to Sacramento, which is known as one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country. Since taking office in January, Trump has widened the pool of undocumented immigrants being targeted for deportation as well as barred the entry of a swath of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Steinberg said Tuesday that Sacramento planned to pursue a different policy for newcomers. The city is one of several jurisdictions in California that provide “sanctuary” to undocumented immigrants, a stance the city has said it is committed to despite threats from the administration to cut funding to such governments.
“Here in Sacramento, we support one another, we don’t deport one another,” Steinberg told the crowd before the forum. “Sorry, President Trump, sorry Director Homan, sorry Sheriff Jones, you have not earned the community’s trust in the core issue of civil rights. This is a serious time. These are serious issues, and the people want real, specific answers.”
Steinberg, along with City Councilman Eric Guerra and Sacramento County supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy, delivered a letter to Jones asking him to “publicly commit” that the county won’t participate in a federal program that engages local law enforcement to help enforce immigration laws. The letter also asks Jones to commit to “protect our local courthouse from ICE activity” and demands “justification” for the county working with ICE to house detainees in the local jail.
While leaving the forum, Steinberg said Jones’ commitment at the forum not to deputize law enforcement was “a scintilla of good news.”
“But am I reassured?” Steinberg asked. “No, trust is to be earned.”
At the protest, de León said forcing local and state law enforcement agencies to spend time on immigration enforcement will divert them from keeping local residents protected.
“No one here wants our communities made more dangerous but with the edicts of the president and ICE, that’s exactly what will happen,” de León said.
De León authored Senate Bill 54, which would prohibit local and state law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, including with ICE.
Homan is a long-time immigration enforcement cop, climbing through the ranks over the past 30 years from a post as a border patrol agent. Before Trump named him the acting director of ICE, Homan was the agency’s executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations – a post that placed him at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.
At the forum, Homan insisted his agency was only enforcing the law.
“If you think ICE officers don’t have a heart, you don’t get it,” Homan said. “Do I feel sorry about the plight of some of these people? Yes, but I have a job to do.”
Homan repeated the Trump administration’s argument that immigration enforcement was a public safety issue.
“Do sanctuary cities make it difficult for us? Absolutely,” Homan said. “They will go back to immigrant communities and commit crimes.”
He said ICE prioritizes “those with criminal histories and compromise national security,” citing figures showing that 75 percent of those undocumented immigrants arrested in Los Angeles had criminal histories.
National crime statistics show that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than U.S. citizens do.
Jones has said he invited Homan to Sacramento to help respond “to both national and local discussion about immigrant enforcement and local law enforcement’s role, and the often conflicting information that is disseminated.” Jones has come under increased scrutiny from local elected leaders who charged the forum would send waves of fear through the region’s estimated 60,000 undocumented immigrants.
On Tuesday, Jones said he was “very pleased” with the forum, despite the contentious atmosphere.
“The intent of this was not to get everyone on the same page,” Jones said. “My goal was to get information out, and I think that had tremendous value. I get it’s a very emotional issue.”
Jones has been critical of SB 54, calling it “the latest in the ill-conceived basket full of poor public safety legislation” put forth by the California Legislature. He added, “I have a strong belief it violates federal law, and federal law reigns supreme.” That view was supported by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions who on Monday urged “states and local jurisdictions to comply” with federal immigration laws.
The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department has said it does not conduct immigration sweeps, nor does it ask for documentation of citizenship from anyone it comes into contact with either on patrol or in its jails. However, the department does hold dozens of inmates at its Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove at the request of ICE and allows ICE agents into the jails “to access our data and inmate population,” according to a department statement from January. The federal agency has contracts with 10 prisons and jails around the state of California to hold inmates suspected of being in the country illegally.
While the Trump administration has said it would prioritize serious criminals for deportation, local activists said they are concerned law enforcement agencies in the Sacramento area have detained undocumented immigrants on low-level offenses and held them for ICE.
“We are going to ask the sheriff to provide us with the number of people stopped for minor traffic violations or minor crimes that have been transferred to ICE by the Sheriff’s Department,” said community organizer Irvis Orozco. “We know it’s already happening.”
Hermandad Mexicana, an umbrella organization for several pro-immigrant groups, issued a statement calling on “our community to not cooperate with the Sheriff’s Office of Sacramento in any manner, except for emergency reasons of violent crime, until Sheriff Jones stands down and stops working with ICE … to deport our families and loved ones.”