I am a member of ICE Out of Merced — a coalition of nonprofit agencies, faith-based organizations, and community members working toward the protection of immigrant rights in Merced County. For more than a year, I have been reaching out to Sheriff Warnke to engage in a dialogue about what the sheriff is doing to make immigrants in our community feel safe.
Sheriff Warnke, an elected official, has consistently declined to meet with our group. He has refused to answer our questions over email. It is unacceptable that the sheriff refuses to engage in a conversation with us about the safety of our community members.
We want to know if the sheriff is complying with the California TRUST Act, which sets a minimum standard that limits the sheriff’s ability to hold immigrants in jail when they are not serving time or awaiting sentencing. We want to know if the sheriff shares information with ICE. We want to know under what circumstances immigrants are transferred to ICE. In fact, we have 29 questions and you can see them here.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors was required to hold a TRUTH Forum in 2018 because Sheriff Warnke provided ICE access to immigrants in 2017. The purpose of this forum is to provide information to the public about ICE’s access to individuals and to receive and consider public comment.
We reached out to the sheriff in 2018 to request a meeting in advance of last year’s TRUTH Forum. Our goal was to meet with him and have a conversation about how the TRUTH Forum could be meaningful to the immigrant community. He replied “I am going to decline the meeting request based upon the fact that I will be attending an open meeting on the 20th and feel that a private meeting held with folks outside the public meeting wouldn’t be proper. I look forward to answering any questions posed to me on that day.”
The trouble is, on Nov. 20, 2018, the sheriff spoke for six-and-a-half minutes with his back to us, and then left. He did not answer any questions on that day. He did not delegate the authority to anyone to answer our questions. And, he has not answered any questions since.
On Nov. 26, 2018, we reached out to the sheriff again. He responded that he was going to have surgery and would be unavailable.
On April 24, 2019, we followed up to ask again for a meeting. On May 7, 2019, Warnke responded that his office follows state guidelines and he does not see the need for the meeting. We reiterated the fact that we would like an in-person meeting. He said he would answer our questions over email.
On Sept. 24, 2019, we sent our 29 questions to the sheriff and reminded him that we would prefer an in-person meeting. Despite two follow-up emails, we have not heard a response. He still has not answered our questions or even responded to our email.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors has planned the TRUTH Forum this year for Nov. 19, 2019 at 1:30 pm in the county building. They are required to have the forum this year since Warnke provided ICE access to immigrants in 2018. The format will be similar to last year — where there will be no space to ask questions. We can expect the sheriff will give a six-minute presentation and leave.
This is not what public accountability looks like. The sheriff is an elected official and has the responsibility to engage with the community. Our organization has important questions about what the sheriff is doing to keep immigrant families in Merced safe and we deserve answers.