Did An Undocumented Immigrant Start The California Wildfires? Sonoma County Calls ICE's Claim "Inaccurate & Inflammatory"
Deadly wildfires have ravaged Northern California for over a week, reportedly destroying a quarter of a million acres of land, leaving thousands of homes and businesses in rubble, and killing more than 40 people. Meanwhile, a contentious debate has erupted over immigration. On Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a statement on Jesus Gonzalez, an undocumented immigrant who was arrested for arson in Sonoma County, one of the places affected by the wildfires. On Thursday, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano issued a release calling out ICE for spreading misinformation about the wildfires, writing that the ICE statement was "inaccurate, inflammatory, and damages the relationship we have with our community." Bustle has reached out to ICE for comment.
“ICE attacked the Sheriff’s Office in the midst of the largest natural disaster this county has ever experienced,” read Giordano's post. “Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, many people have lost their homes and 23 people [in Sonoma] have died from this firestorm. ICE’s misleading statement stirs fear in some of our community members who are already exhausted and scared.”
Giordano already addressed the claims about Gonzalez being the arsonist during a press conference on Tuesday. “There is a story out there that he’s the arsonist in these fires,” he said. "That’s not the case. There’s no indication he’s related to these fires at all. I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control.”
ICE has not responded to Sonoma County's statement, per Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Crum. "We have not heard from ICE as our efforts has been focused on getting people back in their homes," he says.
The ICE statement warned of Sonoma County’s “repeated releases of [a] dangerous criminal alien,” named Jesus Gonzalez, a homeless man who was arrested earlier this week after he allegedly started a small fire in the park. Gonzalez is currently being held in Sonoma County jail and when law enforcement, "asked him if he started the fire, and he said he started the fire to warm himself up,” according to Giordano, who said that the fire was so small that it had been extinguished by a deputy before firefighters arrived.
After ICE released its statement, right-wing news sites including Breitbart, Drudge Report, and InfoWars published stories without any evidence linking Gonzalez with the wildfires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (or Cal Fire) is still investigating the cause of the wind-fueled wildfires and there is no indication that Gonzalez had anything to do with the fires, Giordano said.
"[ICE] Acting Director [Thomas] Homan irresponsibly planted the seed for this rumor and Breitbart and the nativist talking heads were all too eager to run with it," Tom Jawetz, vice president of Immigration Policy at American Progress, tells Bustle. "President Trump set the tone for scapegoating immigrants as criminals on the very first day of his campaign and the national conversation has deteriorated ever since."
ICE has lodged detainer requests against Gonzalez after he was arrested on four separate occasions, according to the statement. Detainers or "immigration holds" are used by ICE to apprehend people after they're arrested by local law enforcement in order to put them into the deportation system.
Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law, tells Bustle that "courts across the country have said this is unconstitutional. The constitution says you have to have probable cause and a neutral judge has to say there is a reason to keep this person incarcerated."
Gonzalez has been sent back to his home country of Mexico twice, according to ICE. Detainers can result in individuals being held in custody for additional 48 hours for removal purposes after his release date, even if they've already paid bail or been deemed no longer a threat by a judge.
"Under President Trump, essentially [ICE] has said never mind we’re going to go full force with detainers and when counties refuse to honor them, we’re going to call out these counties," Das says. "What makes it even worse is that they’re doing it in the context of a severe, crisis situation where counties are trying their best to encourage all of their residents to come forward to go to evacuation sites and so when ICE comes in and decides to attack immigrant community members, even in the context of one individual, it’s just a very dangerous situation."
ICE has announced on Oct. 13 that it would suspend non-criminal immigration enforcement at all shelters, but local residents are still concerned over whether or not they should check into evacuation sites, should they be subject to arrest and deportation. Undocumented immigrants have been seeking alternative shelter in order not to encounter ICE officials and have "headed out to the beaches to camp instead of going to shelters," according to Alegría De La Cruz, Chief Deputy County Counselor of Sonoma County.
"Local police are the people that we expect people to go to and be able to trust when it comes to crises like this and as soon as local police are viewed as proxy immigration agents, that community trust is gone," Das says.
In less immigrant-friendly areas, including Texas and certain parts of Florida, which were recently ravaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, undocumented immigrants have also felt scared to go to shelters, "because their counties refused to adopt policies that would create that clear line between police and immigration officials," according to Das.