One day in May, Jeremias Estrada left his wife behind in Mexico and crossed the international bridge from Tijuana to the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego. Estrada walked right into the hands of the U.S. Border Patrol, just as he’d planned, and requested asylum.
Estrada was one of dozens of asylum seekers to cross that day. They arrived as a group to avoid being turned away by border agents on the bridge, a violation of international law that has become increasingly common since Donald Trump became president.
Most members of Estrada’s group were sent to a private detention center in remote Adelanto, Calif. Estrada and three other men were taken into the heart of Orange County. There, he caught a glimpse of the good life he was hoping to enjoy in the U.S. At the last intersection of the journey, a left turn would have taken him down Style Street, to an outdoor mall with a 30-screen multiplex.
Instead, Estrada’s bus turned right down Justice Center Way. That road ends at the maximum-security 3,442-bed Theo Lacy Facility, the county jail where he’d live until his case was resolved or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) moved him.
AN ENTHUSIASTIC PARTNER
Why did Estrada end up in a county jail in suburbia? The short answer is money — the county has a contract with the federal government to hold immigrants. The longer answer touches on the culture of Orange County, the nation’s sixth most populous, led by officials who pride themselves on law and order. While California is positioning itself as an unapologetic sanctuary state, Orange County remains an island: ICE’s enthusiastic partner.
From all outward signs, Orange County seems to be on the cusp of change. The pro-ICE sheriff has announced her retirement, Latino activists are coming of age and, in the 2016 election, a Democratic presidential candidate won the county for the first time in 80 years.
But Orange County does more than any other part of California to cooperate with Trump’s immigration agenda. For instance, it participates in a program that deputizes jail officers as federal immigration agents. According to a department spokesman, when officers find someone eligible for detention under state law, they place a two-day hold on the inmate and tell ICE when the inmate is set for release. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department is the only one in California that participates in the program.
ICE says these local law enforcement partnerships across the nation are a “force multiplier” to help it enforce federal immigration law. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens describes the program as an efficient mechanism for removing undesirables.
“These offenders pose a significant risk to our communities and removing them is consistent with the department’s mission to enhance public safety for ALL Orange County residents,” Hutchens wrote in a February statement.
Hutchens’ opposition to California’s sanctuary efforts has raised her profile in the past few months — Trump called her “legendary” during a February speech. She also asked U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for more legal tools to help enforce federal immigration law in a state that’s trying to tie her hands.
Hutchens was appointed sheriff in 2008 after the sudden resignation of Mike Carona, who was fighting off a web of corruption charges that eventually sent him to federal prison. Hutchens was the first woman to run the department after a succession of 13 men and was heralded by Orange County supervisors as a change agent who’d clean up Carona’s mess. Instead, she has been on the defensive for her department’s collaboration with ICE, a damning ACLU report about dangerous jail conditions, and for allegedly colluding with informants to coax confessions from inmates.
In recent months, Hutchens, 62, has dismissed multiple calls for her resignation — but she suddenly announced in July that she would retire at the end of her term in 2018. Her announcement threw her department’s future affiliation with ICE into question. The stakes are high, as California’s sanctuary policies force local sheriffs to pick sides between the Trump administration and the state.
Orange County has nearly 250,000 residents who lack authorization to be in the U.S., according to an estimate by Public Policy Institute of California, second in the state to Los Angeles County, with more than 800,000. Hutchens said her cooperation with ICE affects a tiny minority of them. Before 2014, Orange County sent 100 to 150 people a month into ICE custody. That average fell after the passage of California’s Trust Act, which bans local jails from holding onto low-level offenders so that ICE can pick them up. In 2016, the department identified 391 inmates it was permitted to hold for ICE.
“These individuals represent less than 1% of total jail bookings. Their charges ranged from homicide, rape and possession of weapons, to driving while under the influence,” Hutchens wrote in her February statement.
“The sheriff’s public statements always say ‘including murder and rape,’ but when you look behind that veneer … it is rarely murder and rape,” said Jennifer Koh, who directs the immigration law clinic at the Western State College of Law in Irvine. “What we’re really talking about is this wide range of offenses that are much harder to use as a litmus test for someone’s ability to be a productive member of the community, things like drug possession, theft, burglary – which sounds pretty serious, but can be shoplifting a bag of potato chips or a can of beer.”
Orange County has held the contract to house ICE detainees in its county jails since 2010. Three other California counties have fairly small detention contracts: Sacramento, Contra Costa and Yuba each hold between 100 and 200 people on any given day. But Orange County’s contract allows it to hold 958 people at a time. For each detainee, the county bills ICE a daily rate of $118. The deal is worth a maximum of about $40 million a year if ICE keeps its beds full; since 2010, ICE has added $212 million to the county budget.
Orange County is one of the few places in the nation with both a formal arrangement allowing its officers to refer inmates directly to ICE and a contract to house ICE detainees. Immigrant rights activists argue that the combination gives the Sheriff’s Department an incentive to turn people over to ICE, then house them in its own jails.
Complaints about the county’s jails began almost as soon as the first ICE detainees moved in. In 2015, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security over conditions at Theo Lacy, alleging beatings by deputies, medical neglect and transfers into the jail from other facilities as a form of punishment.
In November 2016, on a day that earned the county $56,404 for its 478 detainees, homeland security inspectors arrived unannounced for a look at Theo Lacy. They found broken telephones, moldy showers and long-expired lunch meat. Inspectors found that inmate complaint forms – known inside as “snivel slips” – were mismanaged routinely. For breaking rules, detainees were placed in cells, often alone, for 24 hours a day, against ICE policy.
The Department of Homeland Security report touched off a wave of negative press. But ICE officials were more forgiving: In May, ICE offered to expand the county’s contract by 120 detainees for $5 million more a year. In a statement, ICE said the inspectors’ concerns had been “promptly remedied.”
THE TRUMP FACTOR
While most California jurisdictions are fairly tolerant of unauthorized immigrants, Trump’s victory reinvigorated the Orange County’s conservatives, who once again are leading the movement to increase deportations and override the state’s protections for people living in the U.S. illegally.
It was this separatist streak that led to Orange County’s formation in 1889, when the agricultural area broke away from the urbanizing nucleus of Los Angeles. From the start, county law enforcement played a pivotal role in the conflict between white farm owners and primarily Mexican laborers who picked their crops.
The county’s second top lawman was a farmer, Theophilus Lacy. In 1892, he was given the unenviable task of protecting Francisco Torres, a ranch hand accused of killing his overseer during a wage dispute. Hoping to keep Torres alive long enough to stand trial, Lacy tried to get him transferred to a more secure jail in Los Angeles. Orange County supervisors refused, and a mob broke into Lacy’s jail, seized Torres and hanged him from a tree. Pinned to Torres’ clothes was a sign: “Change of venue.”
Sheriff Logan Jackson took a more hands-on approach 40 years later, after Mexican women working in the citrus groves went on strike, demanding higher wages. In June 1936, Jackson outfitted farm guards with shotguns and ax handles and deputized them to arrest the strikers. Jackson called on federal immigration authorities to deport the agitators. For weeks, strikers terrorized strikebreakers and deputies filled the jails with Mexican workers.
Journalist Gustavo Arellano argued in a 2006 article in OC Weekly that the fight set the tone for relations between Orange County’s mostly white elites — allied with law enforcement — and its immigrant working class.
“The Citrus War solidified the county’s distrust of its Mexican population, which we see whenever they take to the streets,” he wrote. “It created a Sheriff’s Department that can do anything with the full support of Orange County’s fathers.”
AN ANTI-IMMIGRANT HISTORY
Orange County has served as a launch pad for some of the nation’s most influential anti-immigrant movements. In 1994, Huntington Beach resident Barbara Coe organized Proposition 187, a successful ballot initiative, later struck down in court, that would have imposed a citizenship test to access state services. A decade ago, Jim Gilchrist organized the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project from his home in Aliso Viejo, inspiring amateur border-watchers across the Southwest.
“Orange County, maybe more so than other places, has this deep-seated pathology of safety,” said Jennifer Koh, the Western State professor. “Orange County is planned and it’s perfect and it’s clean.”
Minutemen and veterans of Coe’s California Coalition for Immigration Reform have reorganized into new groups focused on deportation as a crime-fighting tool. At an Orange County rally in early 2016, candidate Trump featured members of The Remembrance Project —families whose loved ones were killed by people living in the U.S. illegally. The group has a strong presence in Southern California, and it has been one of Trump’s most powerful tools for illustrating the danger of a porous southern border. Led by state chairwoman Robin Hvidston, members of the group stood behind Trump at the rally holding banners with the faces of slain Californians.
“People that shouldn’t have been here, people that should’ve never been allowed to come over the border, and they come here like it’s nothing,” Trump said. “We don’t have a country anymore. You know, I’m looking at statistics where your crime numbers are so crazy, they’re going through the roof.”
In fact, crime in Orange County decreased in 2016 after rising the year before. As is true elsewhere, the steady long-term trend shows crime has long been declining there.
Earlier this year, Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, co-wrote a paper debunking the argument that immigration leads to higher crime, based on more than 50 studies on the subject.
But Hvidston, also executive director of We the People Rising in Claremont, said statistics have a way of glossing over individual tragedies: “Any parent who’s lost their loved one, that one taking of an American life is one too many.”
NORTH AND SOUTH
There are two halves to Orange County: a wealthy southern side, where thousands turn out to parade through the streets with police, and a northern side, where people of color often are afraid to call the cops. Mission Viejo is 69 percent white. Santa Ana is 78 percent Latino, and almost half of its residents are immigrants. The combined Vietnamese population in three of the county’s northern cities, Westminster, Garden Grove and Santa Ana, is the largest outside Vietnam. The county’s white population is no longer the majority, shrinking to 42 percent in 2015 from 51 percent in 2000.
Such demographic changes can drive philosophical shifts. A Public Policy Institute of California poll earlier this year found that 60 percent of Orange County residents agreed that undocumented immigrants already in the country should be allowed to remain here.
“Orange County is one of the last richest, conservative strongholds in the state,” said Carlos Perea, a leader in the successful recent push for Santa Ana to become a sanctuary city. “What’s changing is, in Santa Ana and Anaheim, you have the fastest-growing young Latino population, and you have the harshest treatment by police.”
THE PRICE OF PROSECUTION
State lawmakers have decided that the money ICE offers for detention isn’t worth the moral or political cost. A few days after Orange County signed its expanded agreement, the California Legislature banned local jurisdictions from entering new contracts for immigrant detention. Another measure, Senate Bill 54, would end the contract in January 2018 if it passes. The “sanctuary state” bill also would end the collaboration between ICE and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department on issuing detainers.
Hutchens has warned about losing money from the detention deal. “Without this agreement our budget will be significantly compromised,” she wrote in a March letter to state Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel.
But Western State professor Koh says the decision to take ICE’s money is a reflection of values, not just economics. “If you see a population that can be profitable and don’t see the harms associated with these policies on the population, then the availability of profits is very attractive,” she said.
Hutchens has assured people in the county that her department’s relationship with ICE has limits: Deputies won’t assist ICE with making arrests outside her jails. “The Sheriff’s Department will provide for your safety and respond to your call for service without concern for your immigration status,” she wrote in her February statement.
Not everyone is convinced.
In the first three months of 2017, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said sexual assault and domestic violence complaints plummeted among Latinos. Orange County’s biggest police departments haven’t released similar numbers, but Paloma Bustos of the domestic violence support network Casa de la Familia says women started telling her this year that they’re afraid to report their abusers – and not out of fear for themselves.
“They don’t want to call the police because they fear that the suspect might get deported,” she said. “They worry about the children … that they won’t get to see their father again.”
WORDS TO THE WISE
One night in July, in a neighborhood park in south Anaheim, a dozen women gathered under a pagoda to learn what to do if ICE agents knocked on their door. The training session was organized by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Katie Brazer, the group’s Orange County director, passed out little red cards with crucial reminders: Don’t open your door. Don’t answer any questions. Don’t sign anything without a lawyer. Give this card to the agent.
When the training ended, two women stayed to talk. Fearful, they would not give their names. They didn’t know about Orange County’s contracts with ICE, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“When there’s gang issues or drug problems, we’re afraid to call because they’re going to say, ‘Well, what about you? What’s your status'” one woman said. “Whatever happens, it’s just better not to call the police.”
This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast.