SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. (KTVU) - Concert-goers at a Mexican music festival Friday evening were startled by a surprise guest: the sheriff.
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick delivered a brief, reassuring message about local non-cooperation with ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The crowd of about 2,000 filled the ballroom at the Graton Rancheria Resort and Casino.
"He is here to tell you from his own heart," said Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris, introducing Essick onstage.
"If you report a crime to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, we will never ask about your immigration status," Essick told the crowd.
The personal presence and message were met with applause by the Latino audience. Essick affirmed that his deputies won't assist Federal raids, and that no one will be reported to ICE after a traffic stop or minor misdemeanor arrest.
"In the 25 years that I've worked here at the Sheriff's office, it has always been the policy that we do not ask people their immigration status," Essick told KTVU before the event
He points to both local policy and state law, passed two years ago.
"We're in full compliance with SB-54 and we are proud of that," said Essick.
"It's the law of the land in California and as Sheriff it's my obligation to follow the law."
But why bring that message to the Las Vegas-style casino in Rohnert Park ?
"Come to a big dance, and you'll have more Latinos in one place at one time than anywhere else," responded Sarris, explaining that he suggested the idea to Essick.
One-quarter of the tribe's casino workforce is Latino.
"With the current policies in the White House, tensions are high," explained Sarris, "and I know Latino people are scared, frightened, and afraid to go to work."
Sarris says the tribe is committed to social justice, so hosting the Sheriff made sense, even if it may have startled some in the audience.
"All of a sudden, I'm walking out with the sheriff, so I'm putting myself on the line," observed Sarris.
At the concert, fliers were also handed out, detailing how local law enforcement has limited cooperation with ICE, and instructing immigrants on their rights when responding to ICE.
Essick believes it's a crucial time to reassure people because with renewed ICE enforcement, immigrants who are crime victims become afraid to report, and witnesses are hesitant to come forward.
"People need to know they can trust the Sheriff's Office, we will always be there to take care of them and investigate crime because crime knows no boundary," said the sheriff.
Essick and Sarris left the stage together to cheers. Sarris noted Native Americans have a different take on the immigration debate, since they have ancestors dating back thousands of years.
"Now we have people who came here 150 years ago complaining about people who've been here ten years," Sarris told KTVU.
"It's kind of silly. We're all here now. What can we do to make a safe world for all of us?"
Another measure of the effect of SB-54: last year the Sonoma County jail alerted ICE to 88 inmates, less than half as many as in 2017.
Only inmates already convicted of serious and violent crimes are to be turned over for deportation.
Latinos make up about one-third of Sonoma County's population, and growing.