Following national media attention over the death of Marilyn Pharis, a U.S. senator from Iowa is accusing Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County of maintaining "sanctuary policies" regarding illegal immigrants, an assertion disputed by local officials.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley also is demanding answers from the Department of Homeland Security on how Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez, one of the suspects in the assault that left Pharis dead, was able to remain in the U.S. despite being an illegal immigrant and having a criminal record.
Grassley sent a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson on Tuesday asking for all immigration and criminal records of Ramirez. He also asked for records pertaining to the other suspect in the attack on the 64-year-old Vandenberg Air Force Base civilian contractor, Jose Fernando Villagomez, who is a natural-born U.S. citizen.
A press release on Grassley's website noted that Ramirez has had several run-ins with the law in Santa Maria, dating back to a 2009 arrest for driving without a valid license and including an arrest last year for felony assault.
Ramirez was convicted of a misdemeanor battery charge in that case and sentenced to probation.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said that although Ramirez was arrested on suspicion of the felony charge in that case, it was filed as a misdemeanor and never was downgraded.
Ramirez was arrested again July 17 on suspicion of possession of drug paraphernalia and of carrying a concealed "dirk or dagger."
He pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor weapons charge, and the drug charge was dismissed. He was released from County Jail on July 20 and was ordered to serve 30 days in jail this fall.
Grassley's press release erroneously said that Ramirez had been convicted of "a firearm-related" crime.
The senator asked DHS to provide the judiciary committee with all information on Ramirez and Villagomez no later than Saturday, including information on detainers ICE placed on Ramirez.
Grassley is also asking if Santa Barbara County has been cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The agency lodged an immigration detainer on Ramirez following the 2014 arrest, but the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department said it was unable to hold him on the detainer without a federal warrant, citing a state law and a federal court case.
Grassley refers to this policy as a "local sanctuary policy" that requires local law enforcement to ignore ICE requests.
The Sheriff's Department has said it cooperates with ICE to the extent that it can, legally. City spokesman Mark van de Kamp also said that Santa Maria assists ICE when requested, noting that the City Council approved a facility that the agency opened in June.
Van de Kamp said that a rumor that Santa Maria is a "sanctuary city" has persisted since 2008, when Ohio-based activist Steve Salvi included it on a list of cities he said shield undocumented immigrants from federal officials.
Van de Kamp said that Salvi refused to take Santa Maria off his list on his website, ojjpac.org, despite repeated requests, most recently on July 16. The website includes a disclaimer that the city disputes the description.
Fifth District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino also has asked for answers on Ramirez's history.
Lavagnino has called for a public hearing to be held during the Sept. 8 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
Ramirez and Villagomez are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday morning.