We grieve the death of a deputy. But don’t blame sanctuary laws for the loss

Before focusing on whether California’s sanctuary state laws impeded the investigation of a cop killing in El Dorado County, it should be said again that the slaying of Deputy Brian Ishmael was an unspeakable tragedy.

Ishmael was only 37. He was described by his colleagues as a kind, “personable” man “who never had a bad day.” He went to Ponderosa High School and was honored by the El Dorado Union High School District for outstanding effort and achievement. Most sad of all, Ishmael was a husband and a father of three small children. His Nov. 5 memorial service in Roseville was attended by more than 3,000 people.

That Ishmael’s death involved an illegal marijuana grow and two undocumented immigrants from Mexico is especially galling. Despite legalizing marijuana, Ishmael’s death is a terrible reminder that the marijuana industry is still rife with crime and violence. And clearly it goes without saying that two undocumented immigrants arrested after Ishmael’s killing should not have been in this country.

No reasonable person would say otherwise. Juan Carlos Vasquez and Ramiro Bravo should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If convicted, they should serve their sentences in the United States. And if either is ever paroled after serving their time, they should be immediately handed over to federal immigration authorities and deported.

Ishmael died on Oct. 23 after he had been called to a marijuana grow site in the town of Somerset on Sand Ridge Road. Ishmael was in the process or ordering everyone out of the grow site when he was shot and killed. Vasquez, 20, has been charged with murder. So has Christopher Ross, a U.S. citizen.


As The Bee’s Sam Stanton reported, Bravo 22, “is suspected of also being at the grow site when the firefight erupted.” Like Vasquez, Bravo is an undocumented immigrant. Jorge Lamas, a U.S. citizen, was also arrested for being part of an illegal marijuana enterprise.

El Dorado County will undoubtedly work hard to prosecute these men because a peace officer was killed in the line of duty and such deaths, along with being terribly tragic, pose enhanced threats to the public. If you will shoot to kill a cop, you will shoot to kill anyone.

But this case took a political twist when Sheriff John D’Agostini blamed California’s sanctuary state laws with impeding the investigation of Ishmael’s killing.

“Please call this what this is,” the sheriff asked reporters at the news conference. “Don’t soften it.

“This tragedy was due to an illegal alien tending an illegal marijuana grow who murdered my deputy. That’s what it is.”

Don’t blame ‘sanctuary’ laws

That’s true, although U.S. citizens were involved as well, and currently one Mexican national and one U.S. citizen charged with Ishamel’s murder.

But here is the thing: California law did not impede this case because California law is clear that local authorities can apprehend undocumented immigrants who commit crimes and they can work with the feds while doing it.

These laws actually have nothing to do with “sanctuary” in a legal sense. They are about making sure that local and state authorities handle local and state issues. Immigration is handled by the feds and California laws only seek to make sure the local and state cops don’t initiate immigration investigations of any kind.

The main immigration law is called The California Values Act. Every California citizen and every working journalist should read the act. If you’re reading this online, simply click on the words “California Values Act.” And if you read the law you will see that D’Agostini is simply mistaken when he insists that the Values Act got in his way.

Read the law if you don’t believe me. Or here is quote from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra from last year. It’s a memo he sent to law enforcement to make sure they understood how the Values Act works.

“Nothing in the Values Act prohibits a California law enforcement agency from asserting its own jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement matters, i.e., engaging in an investigation, detention or arrest for criminal activities based upon California state law, even when its activities may indirectly impact or assist a federal agency that is engaged in immigration enforcement as part of a joint task force or otherwise. “

El Dorado County authorities were frustrated because they felt they couldn’t find out if Vasquez or Bravo were undocumented for two weeks.

I checked with Dan Reeves, who was chief of staff to Kevin De León, the former state Senate leader who authored the California Values Act, and he was perplexed by the words of D’Agostini and U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott.

Reeves said – and the text of the Values Acts backs him up – that El Dorado County officials could have sent the fingerprints of Vasquez and Bravo to the FBI as part of a criminal investigation. The FBI could have run the prints through federal databases maintained by the Office of Homeland Security. Nothing in the Values Act prohibits this.

In the end, it was Homeland Security that confirmed that Vasquez and Bravo were undocumented. With that knowledge, Scott charged the two men with being aliens in possession of firearms. But was the investigation impeded? The suspects have been in custody for weeks. They aren’t going anywhere. They are facing state and federal charges. What was impeded?

“Such brazen violence is shameful and horrific,” De León said. “But this has nothing to do with the California Values Act. To conflate the two issues is irresponsible.”

The shame of misplaced blame

This has happened before. Last year, former Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson blasted the Values Act and called for stricter border security after Newman police Cpl. Ronil Singh was killed on duty and an undocumented immigrant was arrested for the crime.

These cases are understandably emotional. It would be great if Becerra spoke directly to the public when law enforcement leaders attack the Values Act because they give the impression that the state is harboring criminals. It is not.

Becerra’s office did not respond to direct requests to address D’Agostini’s comments. His office would only email the memo he sent to law enforcement.

The law is clear but it’s a real shame that Becerra won’t stand up and defend it publicly. He would be doing a public service by counteracting what must be public confusion over this issue.

When law enforcement leaders in uniform speak, people listen. It cries out for California’s top cop to clear the air. Becerra is a real bulldog in going after President Donald Trump. But when it comes to speaking to complicated and emotional issues involving cops, he’s too often silent.

He wouldn’t have to excoriate D’Agostini. He could remain respectful to a leader who lost one of his own while setting record straight on how state law works. It’s a shame he didn’t and it’s a shame that politics were wrongly inserted into a tragedy.

Deputy Ishmael should not have lost his life on Oct 23. And the men linked to his crime should and will be prosecuted. But the rest? That’s just noise.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.