Chris Kim thought it was unusual last year when the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office called him in for an unscheduled meeting. But he showed up — and walked into a trap.
The 38-year-old Hayward resident was convicted of possession of stolen property in 2015. But in-lieu of jail, he opted for the sheriff's custody alternative program, which allowed him to stay in his apartment and keep his two jobs, one at a hotel, the other a warehouse. All he had to do was wear an ankle monitor and meet in person with a case worker in the sheriff's office every few weeks.
But Kim says that when he showed up for the meeting at the county's Custody Alternative Facility in Martinez last June, Specialist Liz Culley ushered him to a back room, not the cubicle where they usually met. When she opened the door, his heart jumped: Several Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stepped forward and arrested him.
"They're here to deport you," he remembers Culley saying.
The ICE agents handcuffed Kim and drove him to the massive, block-shaped Department of Homeland Security building on Sansome Street in San Francisco. Later, he was shipped to the Yuba County Jail, where the local sheriff contracts with ICE to hold thousands of people facing deportation.
According to Kim, an ICE agent told him that he "could try to fight it," but that he would likely be deported because the government had been looking for him for a long time.
All the while, he kept thinking that they'd got the wrong person, that this had to be a mistake. Kim came to the United States from Korea decades ago, when he was four years old. He is a lawful, permanent resident allowed to live and work indefinitely in the U.S. He can't speak or write in Korean with proficiency. Most of his family also lives in the United States. If he were sent to Korea, he believes it would be akin to cultural banishment.
"Many of us have been here all our lives," Kim told the Express. "It wouldn't be wise to send us back. We would have no support."
Many wrongly assume the Obama administration was friendly to undocumented immigrants. But the United States has deported hundreds of thousands of people annually under his presidency.
Under the federal Priority Enforcement Program, local police work with ICE when non-citizens are arrested. Their fingerprints are shared through an FBI database. And, if ICE identifies the person as undocumented, they issue an "immigration hold" to keep the person in jail for an extra 48 hours, so that agents can arrest them — regardless of whether or not they have been convicted of a crime.
Critics say this creates distrust between immigrant communities and local cops. In response, California legislators passed the TRUST Act, which took effect in 2014 and prohibits local agencies from responding to immigration holds — except in the case of serious crimes.
And Bay Area counties such as San Francisco, Alameda, and Santa Clara have taken extra steps to limit contact with ICE, arguing that state officials have no authority or responsibility to enforce federal civil laws.
But an investigation by the Express reveals that the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office and Probation Department have been working closely with ICE to locate, arrest, and deport people.
These agencies deny that they are breaking any laws. But records obtained by the Express show that sheriff's employees and probation officers went to extraordinary lengths to assist federal ICE agents in carrying out investigations and arrests. In some cases, probation officers even initiated contact with ICE and advocated for certain people to be deported.
"Local law enforcement should not be involved in these kinds of activities," argued Saira Hussain, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, which represents immigrants facing deportation. She and others described Contra Costa County's tactics as ambushes that trick people into surprise ICE arrests, and then deportation.
Kim says his arrest by ICE nearly ruined his life. "It was devastating," he said. "I'm starting from scratch again."
A 'Kafkaesque' Situation
Kim's recent trouble with ICE stemmed back to a crime he committed in Georgia in 1995, when he was eighteen-years-old. After watching a movie that depicted a robbery, he and five friends decided on the spur of the moment to stick-up a store with a fake gun. He spent two years in prison for the offense, and his status as a permanent resident was jeopardized. As a result of the felony, ICE initiated a case to deport him.
But Kim received a pardon from the state of Georgia in 2005. He believed this put an end to the immigration case that was triggered against him for the robbery.
In 2006, he moved to California and had no further contact with law enforcement — until last year, when he was convicted of possessing stolen property, cell phones that had been taken from a retail store. He was subsequently convicted of a misdemeanor and enrolled in the sheriff's custody alternative program.
But while under supervision of the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office and Probation Department, employees shared his information with ICE, and federal agents closed in, working to deport him based on the crime that he had been pardoned for in Georgia.
While detained, he contacted his employers and tried to get them to hold his jobs. But the warehouse where he worked closed, and the hotel was forced to lay him off and hire someone else. Unable to earn an income while incarcerated, he says that he ran out of money and fell behind on rent. He says his landlord charged him a late payment penalty, and that his girlfriend ended up selling his car to pay the fee — but he still lost the apartment.