Did Somerset jail ignore immigration officials’ request? GOP sheriff disputes criticism
SOMERVILLE — A Mexican national who was released on bail despite a federal immigration retainer created something of a turf war between federal officials and a Republican sheriff in a county where President Donald Trump owns a golf course.
Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano said he had every intention of cooperating with the retainer placed on Savino Castro-Pena, but county jail officials could only do what the law allowed under the circumstances.
The sheriff said he also worked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to ensure that Castro-Pena eventually ended up in federal custody. In fact, he said county officials practically delivered Castro-Pena to ICE by having him show up at a county office where federal officials arrested him.
Nevertheless, a statement from ICE late last month slammed the county jail for not cooperating and putting their community "at serious risk."
The statement from ICE said Castro-Pena has convictions for several crimes, including criminal aggravated assault, obstructing the administration of law, and possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose. The ICE statement said he is awaiting sentencing on those charges.
It was not the first time that immigration officials have scolded a Republican county in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Ocean County wound up on ICE's list of so-called sanctuary counties until officials made slight changes to the jail policies. ICE has been naming jurisdictions that the agency believes are uncooperative in an effort to shame them into compliance.
ICE's news release surprised Provenzano, who in an interview with New Jersey 101.5 said his department followed protocol when Castro-Pena was released, including contacting ICE before the paperwork was finalized.
Provenzano said Pena's family came to the jail at 2:30 that morning with the 10 percent of the $30,000 bail. Because retainers do not carry the same weight as court orders, he said bail had to be granted for Castro-Pena.
Jail officials notified ICE about the bail release, but ICE was unable to dispatch an agent to Somerville until after 7 that morning, Provenzano said.
"According to doing this legally, we released him," he said.
Provenzano said ICE was told that Castro-Pena lived nearby and the county arranged for him to be there at 8:30 that morning, which is when ICE arrested him.
"We did everything legal by the letter of the law," Provenzano said. "I want to cooperate 100 percent with ICE. We are all on the same team and I want to cooperate and, of course, I want to keep the bad guys off the street."
ICE did not return requests for a follow-up interview.
In its statement, the agency said the county "failed to honor a detainer" against Castro-Pena and warned about potential dangers of not following such detainers.
"As a nation, we must protect the integrity of our immigration system and the removal of illegal aliens, especially those with a criminal history," said John Tsoukaris, ICE's Newark field office director. He called that work "one of ICE's top priorities."
"ICE shares the county's ultimate objective to protect public safety and national security while simultaneously preserving the critical community-police bond," he added. "However, county jails that fail to work with ICE by releasing criminal aliens put their communities at serious risk."
The ICE statement noted that in 2016 the agency removed or returned 240,255 people. That includes 174,923 who were arrested either while they were entering the country or shortly after. The rest were arrested while they were in the country and "the vast majority were convicted criminals."
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com