Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick and Graton Rancheria Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris, from left, on stage at Graton Casino and Resort's ballroom.

The party took a serious but hopeful turn Friday night, July 26 at Graton Casino and Resort’s ballroom.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick came out to speak to a crowd of primarily Latinos about rights and the Sheriff’s Office not participating in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.

“We will not turn you over to ICE for minor traffic violations or minor public offenses. The Sheriff’s Office will not assist ICE in conducting raids,” Essick said to applause. “No member of the Sheriff’s Office will ask you what your immigration status is … We make our community safer by reporting crime. If you report a crime to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, we will never ask you about your immigration status.”

Essick’s speech took place during the casino’s monthly “Latin Baila” music and dance event.  Attendance is typically around 2,000 for the festivities, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris said, and this time was no exception.

“I have a great opportunity for you to come forward and speak to a group of 2,000 Latinos,” Sarris said to Essick when coming up with the idea. “Tell them that you’re going to protect them. Tell them that you’re not going to turn them over to ICE for misdemeanors, drunk driving, that sort of thing … Tell them that they can report a crime.”

Essick added that the event is part of the Sheriff’s Office’s outreach efforts.

“We do our darndest to engage our community where they work, where they live, but this happens to be a place where they play,” Essick said, noting that he was excited to attend. “This is the track we’ve been trying to accomplish for the last couple years. Whenever we get an opportunity like this, we’re going to grab it and seize the moment.”

After the event Essick was surprised by how well his message was received. He agreed to the point made by others that the Sheriff doesn’t usually get applause from a primarily minority group.

“Those were some simple words for me to say — and I meant them — but I think it was really important to hear me say those words,” Essick said.

Sarris expressed relief after the event, glad that it went over well.

“I was worried. What are the folks going to think? I’m a double agent? I’m the one that they like and all of that and here I am bringing out the Sheriff,” Sarris said. “But hearing them scream and cheer, what I heard was thank you for helping us, thank you for this effort, thank you for bringing us face to face with that man.”

Sarris said he kept the event close to the vest, only alerting media days before the event, because he didn’t want people to be nervous coming to an event with deputies.

“I’m taking a risk bringing that man out there,” he said just prior to the event.

He said he did let a few of his friends who are Latino know what was happening, such as some gym buddies.

“They’re emotional. To think that they might feel safe. To think that they could drive their kids to school and not have to worry about getting picked up if they made a wrong left turn,” he said. “Anyone with brown skin is terrified, because you get harassed whether you’re documented or not.”

Sarris said he didn’t know if things have gotten better under Essick but he wanted to make sure he was doing what he could to alleviate tension and fear.

“I hope this will be a model,” Sarris said. “Let them say to the Latino community, ‘I’m going to follow the law.’”

Essick said that due to the independence of the Sheriff’s Office, he is able to speak strongly on such topics, whereas police chiefs are accountable to city managers and then the city council of the city they are in. Therefore, he said he doesn’t expect a police chief to be as assertive as he was. However, he felt that his statement is in line with the law enforcement leadership in the county.

Essick added that his statement follows California law and what it sets forth for participation with ICE.

“I’m proud that we’re fully compliant with the law and I think that this is just a chance to reaffirm that with the folks here tonight,” Essick said.

He said he doesn’t expect any pushback from ICE as a result of his speech but emphasized that he stands by his statement.

Tribal relationships

Essick and Sarris also spoke about their relationship and the one between the Graton Rancheria Tribe, the Latino community and the Sheriff’s Office.

“Right after I took office, I reached out to the tribal leadership of all the tribes of Sonoma County and extended the hand of friendship and communication,” Essick said. “I think it was mutual that we both extended the hand of friendship to each other.”

Sarris agreed, noting, “Look what can come of that.”

The point was also brought up that the event united both the newest and oldest targets of xenophobia — American Indians and Latinos — on the continent and showed the importance of that relationship to the local government.

“What this tribal council has come to, it’s not to get back or an us vs. them, but to stop a pattern here and worldwide that is destructive,” Sarris said. “We’re all here now, so what can we do to make this a better community for all of us?”

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