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Holding signs that called for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to be removed from Santa Barbara County, a group of roughly 15 protesters gathered Tuesday outside the Board of Supervisors meeting room in Santa Maria to ask the Sheriff's Office to stop cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

The protest, which preceded the supervisors' meeting, was organized by five Central Coast organizations that support the region's immigrant community, and coincided with a report presented to the board Tuesday regarding access by ICE agents to inmates released by the county Sheriff's Office.

Organizer Abraham Melendrez said the Sheriff's Office needs to limit future cooperation with ICE and deny requests by immigration officials to interview county inmates once they are released.

"It's creating a dynamic where local law enforcement becomes an aide to ICE," said Melendrez, who works with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). Because of the Sheriff's working relationship with ICE, Melendrez said individuals without the proper legal status required to live in the U.S. "don't feel comfortable or safe calling the police if they themselves are victims of crimes. They think that if they report a crime, they will be deported."

In response to the protest, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said that new state laws (namely Senate Bill 54, dubbed the California Values Act) have imposed limitations on cooperation between California law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities. While the Sheriff's Office communicates and cooperates with ICE "as much as possible," Brown said the agency is open to meeting with advocates and representatives of members of the immigrant community.

"What this is about is trying to achieve a balance," Brown said, adding that the Sheriff's Office is primarily focused on removing "serious and violent criminals," either through the local criminal justice system or federal immigration system. "Nobody should want criminals who are predators — proven that they will go after and victimize people in the community — to go back into the community if we have an option of removing them.

"Most of the people who come here, whether they're documented or not, are good people," he continued, "but there is a small percentage of them who come here for nefarious purposes."

Under Senate Bill 54, the county Sheriff's Office is permitted to notify immigration authorities of release dates only when the individual has been arrested or convicted of certain violent crimes or felony offenses. 

Drawing cheers and jeers from some passing motorists — including one woman who shouted "We need ICE" from a passing sedan — demonstrators marched to the Joseph Centeno Administration Building before the meeting. Immigrant advocates like Bob Isip, pastor at First United Methodist Church of Santa Maria, said local compliance with national immigration policies targets immigrants through "racial profiling, random selection and unjust deportation."

Santa Maria resident Gale McNeely called the interactions between local authorities and federal immigration authorities "troublesome."

"They're not officially giving them over to ICE, they're just letting them know when they're released," he said. "There's enough coordination between the Sheriff's Office and ICE to make us uncomfortable."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga