California’s Deadliest Fires Set off Debate About Illegal Immigration and Sanctuary Policies

Alene Tchekmedyian and Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2017

Deadly wildfires in Northern California that destroyed or damaged nearly 10,000 homes have set off a contentious debate over something seemingly unrelated: immigration.

At the center of the dispute are the top cops of Sonoma County and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who have been sparring publicly this week in what marks the latest instance of state and federal authorities tangling over immigration policies.

ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan blasted Sonoma County for so-called sanctuary policies that he said has “left their community vulnerable to dangerous individuals and preventable crimes.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano lashed back, saying Homan’s statement was “inaccurate, inflammatory and damages the relationship we have with our community.”

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The controversy stemmed from the arrest Sunday of a homeless man accused of felony arson. Jesus Fabian Gonzalez, who immigration officials said has been returned twice to Mexico, told deputies he set a fire in Maxwell Farms Park in Sonoma Valley, where he’s been seen sleeping, to stay warm. He is being held on $200,000 bail.

A day later, federal immigration authorities said they lodged a detainer, or a request to local jailers to keep an inmate behind bars for up to two extra days, against Gonzalez.

Far-right news outlet Breitbart inflated the story in a report published Tuesday, suggesting that Gonzalez was behind the string of wildfires since Oct. 8 that have devastated the wine country and claimed more than 40 lives.

Giordano quickly and vigorously shot down Breitbart’s claim.

“There is a story out there that he’s the arsonist in these fires. That’s not the case. There’s no indication he’s related to these fires at all,” Giordano said of Gonzalez. “I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control.”

Homan later said Gonzalez had been arrested four times over the past year in Sonoma County and, after each arrest, the federal agency filed a detainer against him. But, he said, ICE was never notified of his releases.

“The residents of Sonoma County, and the state of California, deserve better than policies that expose them to avoidable dangers,” Homan said in a statement. “Non-cooperation policies — now enshrined in California state law — ensure only one thing: criminals who would otherwise be deported will be released and left free to re-offend as they please.”

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[Giordano] also reiterated that there’s no evidence Gonzalez started the wildfires, the causes of which are still under investigation. Giordano went as far as to say “it appears highly unlikely” that Gonzalez was involved.

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