A pugnacious progressive not averse to stepping on toes or throwing an elbow, Russell Trenholme is endowed with the time, money, and temperament to raise some seriously uncomfortable questions. Most recently, Trenholme — founder of the small and relatively new immigration-rights organization IMPORTA — charged Santa Barbara County’s Probation Department has dramatically accelerated the rate at which it refers undocumented youthful offenders in custody at the county’s juvenile detention facility to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE, for deportation back to their home country.
Trenholme said this practice has achieved “unprecedented levels” in the past 18 months and that Santa Barbara County ranks “as perhaps the worst example of human rights abuse of juveniles by a probation department” throughout the state. Trenholme retired to Santa Barbara in 2000 after selling a midwestern eyeglass chain he started with 39 outlets, and since then he has jumped feet first into the turbulent waters of immigration politics.
Several years ago, he took on Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez, accusing the police department of targeting undocumented drivers for car impoundments. Now, in a report coauthored with ACLU boardmember Nayra Pacheco that was released November 26, he charged that the percentage of juveniles Santa Barbara turns over to ICE for deportation is 10 times higher than Orange County, 41 times more than San Diego, and 300 times greater than Los Angeles. “Teenagers screw up; they get in trouble,” he said. “But most get over it and become productive citizens.” But because of widespread hysteria over gangs, he said, Latino teens are not afforded the same opportunity at rehabilitation as white teens.
Latino teens in Santa Barbara, he noted, were tried as adults 13.7 times more frequently than their white counterparts. Not all California counties choose to refer their juvenile offenders suspected of being undocumented to ICE, he said; it’s a discretionary call. But given that many Latino families include both the documented and undocumented, the act of deportation, he said, is “immoral and inhuman” because it tears families apart.
County Probation chief Beverly Taylor took exception to many of Trenholme’s accusations, charging his statistical comparisons with other counties is flat-out wrong because the data he tabulated was incorrect. For example, she charged that Trenholme claimed 70 teens had been booked into juvenile hall during the first six months of 2012, when the accurate number was really 821. As a matter of simple arithmetic, Taylor said that error effectively debunks Trenholme’s assertion that Santa Barbara refers a larger percentage of juveniles to ICE than L.A., San Diego, or Orange counties.
Even so, Taylor — a 31-year veteran of County Probation — acknowledged the number of juvenile ICE referrals had, in fact, jumped significantly in the past 18 months, and she’s not sure why. “It’s something our department needs to take a look at,” she said, “and we will.” She said the department is doing nothing differently and that the policy of notifying ICE about potentially undocumented minors dates back “for as long as I can remember.” She acknowledged not all counties do it the same way Santa Barbara does. Some don’t refer at all, she said. And some wait for the juveniles to be convicted of wrongdoing before contacting ICE.
Santa Barbara notifies ICE before adjudication of the holding charge occurs. Because of that, it’s possible that some juveniles could find themselves in ICE custody even if charges against them were dropped. Taylor’s assistant in charge of juvenile probation — Steve DeLira — said that possibility, while real, would “be the exception to the rule.” As flawed as she said Trenholme’s statistics were, Taylor said his report gave her some pause about the county’s traditional approach. “We are looking at our policy to see if there is a better and different way to handle it,” she said.
For his part, Trenholme is not ready to concede his numbers are as off as Taylor said. But percentages aside, he said Los Angeles County released only five undocumented teens to ICE in the first six months of 2012 while Santa Barbara County released 20. Taylor expressed some skepticism that Trenholme’s statistics about Los Angeles were accurate, but she confirmed Santa Barbara had, in fact, released 20 undocumented teens to ICE during the same six-month period. And in the past 18 months, she said — and Trenholme agreed — her department has released 31 undocumented minors to ICE. By contrast, only nine were released to ICE in the previous two years.
Taylor explained her department notifies ICE when they suspect teens might be undocumented based on statements made about their birthplace and length of time in the United States. The number of such notices, she said, has remained steady. But the number of “holds” placed by ICE in the past 18 months has jumped to 50, as opposed to 31 the previous two years. Clearly, not all juveniles placed on ICE “hold” are actually “released” to ICE, nor are all juveniles released to ICE actually deported. Some are put in juvenile detention facilities throughout the western United States; some, Taylor said, are released to relatives. As to number of actual deportations, neither Trenholme nor Taylor said they had any reliable data.