The Human Cost of a Sanctuary County's 'Malicious Compliance' Policy

By Dan Cadman on August 31, 2017

This is a story of a tragedy that didn't have to happen; one that resulted in the death of a woman, leaving her two children motherless. Bear with me because it'll take a moment to tell, but it's a story, once again, about the evils of stupid, misguided sanctuary policies from a local government determined to show its political correctness at any cost, even when the so-called beneficiaries of such policies — the immigrant community — are, in fact, its victims.

We frequently write about tragedies that result from willfully blind government and law enforcement officials in sanctuaries that refuse to acknowledge the human cost of releasing illegal alien criminals rather than turning them over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

One such case, which became notorious nationally, involved the murder of Kate Steinle by a multiply deported alien felon in San Francisco, a vigorously sanctuary-oriented city. She was killed because the alien in question was turned over to San Francisco authorities by ICE agents who discovered an outstanding criminal warrant when they arrested him in a field operation. San Francisco returned the favor by accepting custody, declining the prosecution, and then refusing to return him to ICE, choosing instead to let him walk the streets until he shot Ms. Steinle, who died in her father's arms. The sheriff at the time was Ross Mir-Karimi, whose swaggering arrogance typified all that is wrong with proudly defying federal immigration enforcement efforts. The Steinle tragedy cost him his job, but he was of course a scapegoat, and San Francisco's policies continue unabated to this day, even as city officials protest the attorney general's determination to starve them of federal grant monies for their noncompliance with federal laws.

The most recent tragedy arising from misguided sanctuary policies is one of a slightly different sort because it reflects a policy of what might fairly be described as "malicious compliance" rather than noncompliance — although the outcome was just as outrageous and just as unnecessary as that in the Steinle case. This time the tragedy, in the form of another murder, took place in Sonoma County, Calif.

Often, sanctuary policies are enacted in communities that see themselves as upscale and progressive — although these communities also often have an economic underclass that supports the lives of the well-to-do. That underclass is sometimes significantly more ethnic, more heavily immigrant-based, and includes a substantial community of illegal aliens into which the less savory criminal element blends as a way of escaping official attention from immigration authorities.

Sonoma County is just such a place: Home to various urban and suburban areas, but most of all a rural idyll and premier American Viticultural Area with acres upon acres of vineyards and tony wineries with tasting facilities, as well as classy restaurants and inns in the towns and hamlets that dot the county. But, of course, all of the above doesn't mean that crime is nonexistent in the county. It's probably just something not spoken about in polite, upscale society.

The county sheriff's office until very recently had, in essence, a policy of noncooperation with federal immigration officers. This was under former Sheriff Steve Freitas, who is said to have retired at the end of July for health reasons. During his tenure, Freitas claimed that his department's policy was guided by getting "bad guys" and so he forbade his officers from ever inquiring into immigration status (apparently he was simple-minded enough to think aliens and crime are never intertwined).

There is a YouTube video of the sheriff speaking to a Hispanic organization, Los Cien ("The Hundred"), in which he announced proudly that he had not honored any ICE detainers for the more than 1,200 inmates occupying the two county jails the sheriff's office is responsible for. He claimed he didn't want Homeland Security to "waste my time" with immigration matters because he was interested in "violent crime". The short clip is worth watching, if only to observe the posturing. Note how he said he would be willing to let deputies work with Homeland Security to catch bank robbers, which he must surely have known was outside the scope of their mission, but that he would insist first on a signed paper in which they agreed to overlook their legal responsibilities by ignoring anyone they encounter who is illegally in the country. This is a video of a man full of himself.

In fairness, though, Freitas was also bowing to the political winds of the county. According to the Press Democrat newspaper, "The Sheriff's Office has faced significant scrutiny over its cooperation with ICE at the county jail. The Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach and county supervisors have pressed the Sheriff's Office to limit its response to notification requests from ICE."

The paper tells us that after Freitas' health-related retirement at the end of July, the new acting sheriff, one Rob Giordano, changed the policy. The sheriff's office still refuses to honor detainers, but does notify ICE agents, in selected cases, about illegal aliens in its inmate population prior to release. (Remember that phrase "prior to release", because it's pertinent.)

Now for the crux of the story behind the tragedy: On August 2, Nery Israel Estrada-Margos (described as "a Santa Rosa man" by the Press Democrat, which goes out of its way not to tell us what country he is a citizen of) was arrested for felony domestic battery. The victim/complainant was his live-in girlfriend, Veronica Cabrera Ramirez. Media have described her ex-husband as a citizen of Guatemala, so it's possible that both she and Estrada-Margos were/are also Guatemalan. Be that as it may, when digital fingerprints of Estrada-Margos' arrest were electronically compared against DHS records, ICE agents determined that he was illegally in the United States and filed a detainer to take custody of him. But, of course, the sheriff's office doesn't honor such detainers — they merely notify ICE of impending releases.

On August 3, after posting bail, Estrada-Margos was released to the streets. According to the Press Democrat, "The Sheriff's Office notified ICE that day of his release, but federal agents did not come to the jail to pick him up."

Nothing more was thought about the incident, so similar to scenarios sanctuary jurisdictions around the country, until August 18, when Estrada-Margos turned himself in to the sheriff's office, saying he thought he had killed his girlfriend. He had. She was beaten to death, as responding deputies discovered.

Of course at this point the whole question of who had custody when (or not, as the case may be) was again raised and looked at more closely. The sheriff's office tried to duck responsibility, as is evident from the Press Democrat story, by saying that they had notified ICE, which didn't show up — the implication being that ICE agents are simply slow, ineffectual, and uncaring. A sheriff's office spokeswoman was filmed by a local television station saying pretty much the same thing. Under the prior administration, ICE offices were often forbidden from responding to such accusations simply because the Obama White House was so hostile to immigration enforcement that they didn't care if the agency got an undeserved black eye.

This time, though, the San Francisco field office of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations division — which is the closest field office to Sonoma County — did respond. They provided a timeline showing that the sheriff's office notified them exactly 16 minutes before Estrada-Margos was due to be released.

Do the math: That's a 58-mile drive through sometimes heavily trafficked roads. The sheriff's office knew that it would be a logistical impossibility for ICE agents to arrive in a timely manner in order to take custody of the man. It seems clear that the new policy is to shave down the time before release in order to appear to be compliant with federal laws that require open exchange of information between federal immigration officers and other federal, state, and local agencies, and yet at the same time to ensure that the aim of actually taking custody of offenders is completely frustrated.

Why then, you may ask, would the sheriff's office even bother to notify ICE if it does so in a way that precludes agents from reacting in time to actually arrest any alien offenders being released from county custody? Almost certainly it's about money. The county (in the person of new interim sheriff Giordano) may be doing everything possible to impede enforcement of the immigration laws, but they're not above taking federal grant money for the criminal aliens they house in their jails.

In past years, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has been the happy recipient of millions of dollars from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) — $284,393 in federal fiscal year (FFY) 2015 alone, the most recent year recorded, and even more the year before that: $297,824. In addition, the county has received tens of thousands of dollars under the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (Byrne-JAG) program: $48,287 in FFY 2016 alone.

Both SCAAP and Byrne-JAG are among the grant programs whose funds Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced will no longer be given to sanctuary jurisdictions.

Sheriff Giordano's resolution of that dilemma — cooperate or lose money — has been to conceive a policy that can fairly be called "malicious compliance" through a mechanism of last-minute notices, believing that in this way he can maintain the reality of sanctuary, whatever the cost may be in human tragedy, while also maintaining the fiction of cooperation. He is clearly a man with a fluid moral compass. But I don't think that this creative fiction will be enough to salvage the county's money, which he and county political leaders appear to care about more than the safety of the community at large, or of the immigrant community that exists within the larger whole.

So please, let's not pretend this facade of cooperation is about fairness or equality under the law. No one is served by permitting "violent bad guys" such as Nery Estrada-Margos walk the streets. The sheriff's office had in its hands the capacity to avert the murder of Veronica Cabrera Ramirez by doing the right thing and turning over Estrada-Margos to immigration agents. She just didn't rank high enough in their priorities.