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Increased immigration enforcement hits home
An ICE police officer stands with Department of Homeland Security police officers blocking the street as May Day protesters target the ICE offices in Portland, Ore., on May 1. The perception of increased Immigration and Enforcement Customs enforcement in the Stanislaus County area — is truly just a perception, according to local immigration attorney Patrick Kolasinski (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP Images)

While immigration has remained a hot topic of debate on the national stage for decades, the issue is just as relevant in the Central Valley where tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants reside. Nationwide, immigration raids announced by the Trump administration last week have brought Immigration and Enforcement Customs officers to the region — and to Turlock — to carry out targeted deportations.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, there are 11 million immigrants in the state. While 86 percent of California’s immigrants are either naturalized U.S. citizens or have some form of legal status, like a green card or visa, 14 percent of those who come here from another country are undocumented.

That number has decreased from 2010 to 2017, the Center for Migration Studies says, going from two million to 1.5 million — likely due to the United States’ strict border enforcement. Under the Obama administration, three million undocumented immigrants were deported, while during President Donald Trump’s tenure, which began in 2017, over 750,000 have been deported so far.

Modesto immigration attorney Patrick Kolasinski has represented close to 500 undocumented immigrants in court since 2016, he said, many of whom are arrested by ICE directly from the Stanislaus County Jail.

“Our region is unique as far as immigration enforcement goes in the way that the criminal justice system kicks in here. We have such a high population of people who are out-of-status immigrants that the sheer number who end up in the criminal justice system is higher than other regions, so ICE has so much opportunity to take people from jail that they have very little incentive to go seeking people out in the community,” Kolasinski said.

Between Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties, there are 119,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That includes 36,000 in Stanislaus County, 27,000 in Merced County and 56,000 in San Joaquin County.  Of Stanislaus County’s undocumented immigrants, 89 percent hail from Mexico and 19,000 are employed, with a majority working in agriculture.

Since President Trump announced heightened immigration enforcement, Kolasinski hasn’t encountered any undocumented immigrants from the area who have been arrested and need his representation. He has received calls of cars being stopped and questioned by federal border agents in Turlock, he said; however, these are targeted actions, rather than ICE officers pulling over vehicles at random.

“People have reported seeing ICE in Turlock, and that’s likely very true,” Kolasinski said. “Someone got pulled over by ICE in town and they were a citizen, but they had purchased a car from someone illegal so ICE was looking for that car specifically. That out-of-status person got really lucky, but they were being targeted and that’s why ICE was in the neighborhood.”

Trump’s ramped up enforcement efforts will target over 2,000 families throughout the country, and ICE has been ordered to go after undocumented immigrants who have outstanding orders of removal. In other words, those who have already been taken into custody by ICE in the past and didn’t show up to court.

In the Central Valley, the absconder rate, or number of undocumented immigrants who don’t show up for court after being taken into custody, is among the lowest in the nation, Kolasinski said. From 2017-2019 the rate has remained at zero percent, meaning there are likely to be few arrests in the region.

Many undocumented immigrants are unaware ICE is looking for absconders and felons, and recent rhetoric surrounding immigration has caused many to flee the country.

“Don’t be afraid — your fear doesn’t do anything. Go get screened by an immigration lawyer who can tell you what your risk profile is like,” Kolasinski said. “I wouldn’t say don’t worry, but if you aren’t in a high-risk group, meaning you have no criminal history and you haven’t had an order of deportation because you didn’t show up for court, I would be shocked if ICE arrested you.”

Undocumented immigrants who are taken into custody are evaluated by a judge, who determines whether or not to set a bond based on the person’s risk to the community and their flight risk. There are countless criminal offenses, both major and minor, that make someone bond ineligible, and most undocumented immigrants are not released once they are caught.

“If you have any criminal convictions, a judge will not set a bond — full stop, no questions,” Kolasinski said. “A small number who are in fact eligible for bond, the judge makes the determination that they’re not dangerous or pose a flight risk and sets the bond on an individualized basis.”

Historically, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department has been as cooperative with ICE officers as California’s controversial sanctuary law allows them to be. Under the law, deputies can enter an undocumented immigrant’s information into the online system Federal Bureau of Investigation criminal tracking sheet, which ICE can check. ICE is allowed to come to the jail if there’s someone there they need to take into custody, but the sheriff’s department cannot reach out to ICE to inform them of a specific individual in custody.

There is an exception to the law; the sheriff’s department can alert ICE if an undocumented immigrant in custody has been charged with a felony, once they’re past the preliminary hearing stage — these often include violent felonies and drug trafficking charges.

“Generally speaking, they don’t need to alert ICE. ICE has incredible resources, and so they know long before a case gets to that preliminary stage that someone is in custody,” Kolasinski said. “They have the resources to find whoever they want to.”

Kolasinski has worked closely with ICE officers over the years, and has gotten to know local enforcement agents on a personal basis.

“They’re actually really cool guys,” he said. “They come in hard and fast because a lot of the people they go after are really bad dudes.”

Kolasinski encouraged any undocumented immigrants who believe ICE is looking for them to arrange a self-surrender. He has walked clients right into the ICE field office in Stockton, he said — something that can often give the defendant a leg up in court, as they’ve demonstrated their willingness to cooperate and that they are likely not a flight risk.

The perception of increased enforcement — which, given ICE’s targets in the region is truly just a perception, Kolasinski said — has affected the community. False Facebook posts and tweets about ICE checkpoints, which are illegal and don’t take place except for within 100 miles of the border, have stirred fear and panic among those who likely don’t have much to fear.

“We have people flooding in and calling our office asking for relief or for protection in some way from being into custody,” he said. “For now, the big thing is don’t panic. Don’t send out those tweets, don’t send out those notices until you’ve at least confirmed that ICE is doing something in the area. Even then, they’re there for a reason.”