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. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement might have let Estrada live in freedom until his date with a judge. But under Trump, ICE has been placing far more asylum seekers in detention.
Most members of Estrada’s group were sent to Adelanto, California, a remote High Desert town where The GEO Group runs a private detention center. 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 ICE moved him. At night, the bright sign of a restaurant across the street shined through a cellblock window, reminding Estrada and his bunkmates of how close they were.
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, a collection of cities and towns led by officials who pride themselves on safety, 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 for the first time in 80 years.
Yet Trump’s presidency also reinvigorated the 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. And 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 first top lawman was Richard T. Harris, a Virginia-born entrepreneur who, in one of his first acts as sheriff, dropped his gun and shot himself in the leg. The second was Theophilus Lacy, a farmer and horse keeper. In 1892, he was given the unenviable task of protecting Francisco Torres, a ranch hand accused of killing his overseer over a wage dispute.
It was the first big test for the new county’s law enforcement. 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 in the early morning hours of Aug. 21, a mob broke into Lacy’s jail, seized Torres and hanged him from a tree. Pinned to Torres’ clothes was a sign that read, “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 strike-breakers and deputies filled the jails with Mexican workers.
Journalist Gustavo Arellano resurfaced the little-known story of the conflict in a 2006 article in OC Weekly, in which he argues 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.”
Today, 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 – the first woman to run the department after a succession of 13 men – 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. She 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 alleged collusion with jailhouse informants.
On July 5 this year, Hutchens walked into a courtroom and took a seat on the witness stand. She had traded her usual Army green uniform for a professional black-and-white houndstooth jacket. Hutchens’ day in court marked a dramatic peak in the inquiry into accusations that her department and the district attorney colluded with informants to coax confessions from targeted inmates. A row of TV cameras stood just feet from her, catching every syllable.
Scott Dekraai, a convicted mass murderer, sat across from Hutchens. Dekraai’s lawyer questioned her about an informant program that he argued had been used to extract an illegal confession from his client. Hutchens calmly answered his questions for hours but denied knowing anything about the program.
“I will not say that there may not have been misconduct by a few,” Hutchens testified, “but they are under investigation. It is not widespread.”
The practice was widespread enough to persuade Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals in August to spare Dekraai from the death penalty, given the possibility that evidence against him came from an illegal informant.
In recent months, Hutchens, 62, has dismissed multiple calls for her resignation – but she suddenly announced this summer 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, a state law that bans local jails from holding on to low-level offenders so that ICE can pick them up. In all of 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.”
A second collaboration between Orange County and ICE is what landed Jeremias Estrada in the jail beside the outlet mall. In 2010, Orange County supervisors agreed to a five-year deal to house ICE detainees in its county jails.
The United States holds about 400,000 people a year in the world’s largest immigrant detention system. But the government doesn’t own the jails. Instead, ICE contracts with private companies, cities and counties to house detainees such as Estrada. Three California counties have fairly small detention contracts: Sacramento, Contra Costa and Yuba each hold between 100 and 200 people on any given day. 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; it invoiced the government more than $34.5 million in the fiscal year that ended in June – 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, and the contract has been renewed for a second term, through 2020.
After agreeing to discuss his case in person, detainee Estrada got a new lawyer, who advised him against talking to reporters until his asylum case is resolved, for fear that ICE or the Sheriff’s Department might retaliate.
Orange County is one of the few places in the country with both a formal arrangement allowing its officers to refer inmates 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. Daniel L. Stageman at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice has estimated that the county would have made about $12 million off the detainees it referred to ICE in 2012.
Complaints about the county’s jails began almost as soon as the first ICE detainees moved in. According to a lawsuit filed against the county in 2011, guards at the Theo Lacy and James A. Musick facilities forced a Sikh man to remove his turban, a violation of his religious practice and of ICE policy. 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 lunchmeat. The meat smelled and tasted so bad that inmates had developed a practice of rinsing it off before putting it back into their sandwiches. Inspectors found that the 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 launched a wave of negative press: Mother Jones wrote that Theo Lacy “may be America’s worst immigration detention center.” But ICE officials were more forgiving: In May, ICE offered to expand the county’s contract, tacking on an extra 120 detainees for $5 million more a year. In a statement, ICE said the inspectors’ concerns had been “promptly remedied.”
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 signing new contracts for immigrant detention. That law will prevent Orange County from renewing its contract beyond 2020. Another measure passed in September, Senate Bill 54, likely would end the county’s enforcement agreement with ICE and prohibit the county from further expanding its detention contract – if Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill.
Hutchens has joined other sheriffs in lobbying against the bill, but she has particularly warned about the stakes of losing money from the detention deal.
“Without this (detention) agreement our budget will be significantly compromised,” she wrote in a March letter to state Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel. Her officers union, which supports the detention deals, had gotten an 8.5 percent pay raise in September, at a cost of more than $62 million over three years.
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.
Orange County has served as a launch pad for some of the country’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, including health care and public schools. A decade ago, Jim Gilchrist organized the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project from his home in Aliso Viejo, inspiring amateur border-watchers across the Southwest. In 2006 and 2007, residents of Lake Forest and Mission Viejo passed local ordinances banning day laborers who hung around shopping centers looking for work.
“Orange County, maybe more so than other places, has this deep-seated pathology of safety,” said Koh, the Western State professor. “Orange County is planned and it’s perfect and it’s clean. … If you’re used to having your lawn perfectly manicured, you’ll notice when there’s a little brown spot.”
Although Coe died four years ago, others have taken up her cause. Minutemen and veterans of Coe’s California Coalition for Immigration Reform lately 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 is based in Houston but has a strong presence in Southern California, and it has been one of Trump’s most powerful tools for illustrating the danger of a southern border without a wall.
Trump gave the group a prominent role in his Costa Mesa rally. Anti-Trump demonstrators clashed outside with hundreds of Trump supporters, who overflowed from the Pacific Amphitheatre. Onstage, Trump introduced the group to 18,000 of his fans. Led by state chairwoman Robin Hvidston, the group stood behind him 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 waning there. In February, researchers at the University of California, Irvine predicted that violent and property crimes both would fall again in 2017.
Earlier this year, Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, co-wrote a paper debunking the argument that immigration leads to higher crime. Kubrin picked apart more than 50 studies on the subject over the last two decades. She found that higher immigration is associated with lower crime.
“The consistency is breathtaking,” she said.
Hvidston, who is also executive director of We the People Rising in Claremont, said statistics have a way of glossing over individual tragedies: “In my opinion, we have enough criminals; we don’t need to be importing criminals from other countries. And any parent who’s lost their loved one, that one taking of an American life is one too many.”
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, home to the Sheriff’s Department’s annual Walk Against Drugs, 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, amounts to the largest outside Vietnam. The county’s white population is no longer the majority, shrinking from 51 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2015.
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, just slightly less than the statewide tally of 68 percent.
When Orange County votes on Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ replacement, it will do so with a vastly different electorate than in 1998, the last sheriff’s election without an incumbent in the race.
“Orange County is one of the last richest, conservative strongholds in the state,” said Carlos Perea, program director at the Santa Ana-based group Resilience Orange County. “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.”
Perea crossed the border alone at age 14 to join his family here. He paid his way through community college with help from a scholarship recognizing his organizing work. Politically minded young people such as Perea have coalesced into a social justice movement built not only around partisan elections – people in Santa Ana, Perea said, are tired of being courted in November and forgotten by December – but also focused on tangible improvements in their community.
On a hot evening in July, with the setting sun reflecting off the mirrored buildings in Santa Ana’s Civic Center, Perea and a dozen other activists gathered to introduce what they hoped would be their latest win: approval of a $65,000 immigrant legal defense fund. City and county officials in Los Angeles had funded a much larger one a few weeks earlier; this would be the first in Orange County.
The City Council approved the fund that night. Activists recently had persuaded the council to scale back its detention contract with ICE – in place since 2006 – after which ICE canceled the contract altogether. And in late 2016, with the Trump era looming, Perea and other activists lobbied the council to pass a sanctuary city ordinance that bars Santa Ana police from collecting or sharing citizenship information.
“Ours is the strongest (sanctuary law) in the nation because it has no carve-outs,” said Roberto Carlos Herrera of Resilience Orange County. “We know that our family members are felons. We give second chances for all. We wouldn’t leave anyone behind in our communities.”
The ordinance calls on the department to train officers to issue citations for immigration violations instead of making arrests, to shut off the pathway to ICE through Orange County’s jails.
“Even though we’re undocumented, we do have political power if we use it,” Perea said.
In a neighborhood park in south Anaheim later that night, a dozen women gathered under a pagoda near a children’s swing set to learn what to do if ICE agents knocked on their door. The session was organized by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, which leads these types of trainings across Southern California. 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.
“We are one of the wealthiest areas, but hand in hand, we also have some of the most poor, most immigrant communities,” Brazer said. “It’s this weird situation where this limited handful of people is controlling the situation.”
Traffic on the I-5 hummed in the background, and beyond the highway was Disneyland. Five years ago, an Anaheim police officer shot and killed a man named Joel Acevedo a few blocks from here, one of a string of shootings that prompted mass protests against Anaheim police. That same summer, three members of the Anaheim Vatos Locos gang shot at undercover officers in an unmarked police car just around the corner.
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.”
Mariana Rivera, a community organizer who led the training alongside Brazer, lives in the neighborhood, too. She has seen the fallout from fear. “People don’t want to leave (home),” she said. “They’re afraid to drop their kids off at school.”
But she also reminds her neighbors that the dangers they fled in Central America are far worse.
“I tell them not to leave because it’s worse back there,” she said. “In countries they come from, it’s even more difficult.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nadia Wynter and Nikki Frick.