Local cooperation with ICE is on the ballot in these counties
Local officials wield great power over a county’s immigration policies. Many of their decisions escape widespread attention, but the organizing against ICE partnerships broke through in primaries this year, helping topple incumbent sheriffs in Milwaukee and in Charlotte. The scope of local immigration enforcement is now on many counties’ November ballot. I have already profiled sheriff’s elections in Hennepin County, Minnesota, Doña Ana County, New Mexico and Ulster County, New York through this lens. Today, I delve into six other counties:
Maryland: 3 counties are in ICE’s 287(g) program. How many after November?
ICE’s 287(g) program deputizes local officers to act as federal immigration agents, research the status of people held at the county jail, and detain people they suspect to be undocumented. Three Maryland counties are part of 287(g): Anne Arundel County (which is home to Annapolis, the state capital), Frederick County, and Harford County.
This partnership has strained the relationship between local government and residents. “It creates a climate of fear, particularly for the Latino community and communities of color,” Jose Perez, the deputy general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, told me. Immigrants are reluctant to contact law enforcement and broader public services, adds Elizabeth Alex, the senior director of community organizing at CASA of Maryland. “Parents particularly are opting to stay quiet and staying home, and not accessing services” that their children are eligible for, she told me.
Complicating matters, the power to join or terminate 287(g) agreements rests in different offices: in Anne Arundel, ICE’s agreement is with the county executive, while in both Frederick and Harford the responsibility lies with the sheriff.
Each of these three offices is on the November ballot. Each features a GOP incumbent who defends 287(g) against a Democratic challenger, typically by warning that quitting the program would mean releasing “criminals” “back onto the street,” as one sheriff put it—an argument that conflates crime and immigration and undermines due process; it also blurs the line between different grounds of detention since one is not being held on criminal charges if only held based on suspected immigration status. The script is inverted in a fourth county, Washington, where a GOP challenger to the Democratic sheriff is running on a pledge to join the 287(g) program.
Anne Arundel County
Anne Arundel County voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 for the first time in more than 40 years. But Steve Schuh, Anne Arundel’s Republican county executive, had his county join the 287(g) program soon after. Schuh has also overseen another deal with ICE: an agreement to detain immigrants on ICE’s behalf in exchange for payments.
In June, in the run-up to a protest family separation policies, Schuh’s Democratic challenger Steuart Pittman committed to withdrawing from both ICE deals. Pittman said he would use the freed-up jail space for a drug treatment facility. “Our biggest problem right now is beds for people who want drug treatment,” he told the Capital Gazette.
Schuh charges that Pittman’s positions would weaken public safety. “I am alarmed by my opponent’s plan to release illegal immigrants charged with serious crimes into the community,” reads a Schuh campaign mailer. But the people targeted under 287(g) are often arrested for low-level offenses like drug possession and disorderly conduct, Nick Steiner, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, told me. “I think [Schuh] is trying to ride this national bandwagon that the way to unite the right is to use immigrants as scapegoats,” Axel said.
The sheriff’s election features the same divide. Republican Jim Fredericks wrote a Baltimore Sun op-ed calling 287(g) “an extremely important public safety tool,” while Democrat James Williams supports dropping out of both ICE deals. “The bed space could be used for better purposes, such as, for the treatment of those with a mental health crisis,” he told me.
First elected in 2006, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins wasted little time before signing a 287(g) agreement in 2007—and he has been a staunch defender of the program ever since. He has testified about it in Congress or in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s presence, and he called 287(g) a “real key piece of national security” at a public event last year.
Jenkins claims that the sheriff’s department has faced no racial profiling allegations since joining 287(g). But in 2009, a woman alleged she was profiled and arrested by local deputies while eating lunch. Federal courts later ruled in her favor, finding that she was unlawfully detained based on immigration status; a federal judge ruled in September that Frederick County is liable for damages. Perez told me that another woman has alleged being targeted by profiling in Frederick County earlier this year. “It appears that this is still ongoing,” Perez said, faulting the sheriff for creating a climate conducive to such violations. Jenkins came into office on a “lock them up, ship them back” message and kept up that rhetoric. “What do you expect deputies to do but to follow his lead?,” Perez asks.
In November, Jenkins faces Democrat Karl Bickel in a rematch of the 2014 election. Himself a former employee of the sheriff’s office, Bickel has not said whether he would end the 287(g) program. However, he proposes to conduct an audit. “Questions about the value of the 287g program need to be answered with accurate data,” according to his website. “We have more urgent priorities than immigration,” it says elsewhere on the site, referring to the opioid crisis.
Harford and Washington counties
Harford County (a traditionally GOP-voting county north of Baltimore) joined 287(g) in 2016 under the guidance of GOP Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler. In November, Gahler faces Christopher Boardman, a Democrat who says he would withdraw from the program. Boardman wrote a Dagger column in 2016 against Gahler’s decision to join 287(g), warning that this would entangle the county in legal battles and financial harm.
The roles are flipped in Washington County, which is not in 287(g). Here it is the challenger (Republican Brian Albert) who proposes joining it and frames undocumented immigrants as a threat to public safety. “We don’t have as bad a problem as some of the more urban areas, but we want to get ahead of it and tackling it before it does become a problem,” he told LocalDVM.com. The incumbent sheriff (Doug Mullendore, a Democrat) opposes joining 287(g), questioning whether it would be financially viable. This is a conservative county that voted for Trump by 30 percentage points, but Mullendore has been sheriff since 2006.
California: Will Orange County continue circumventing the ‘sanctuary state’ law?
In 2017, California adopted Senate Bill 54, a “sanctuary state” bill that limits contact between local law enforcement and federal authorities. The Orange County sheriff’s office has organized against the law ever since. It pushed the county to join the Trump administration’s lawsuit, and it now posts the dates at which people are scheduled to be released from jail online; the idea is to circumvent the new limits on communicating with ICE by making information altogether public. In addition, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has sought to expand the number of immigrants that the county holds for ICE. Immigrants are detained in terrible conditions in Orange County, according to a 2017 Department of Homeland Security report on the Theo Lacy Facility, which features 24-hour solitary confinement, and unsanitary food and showers.
Hutchens is not seeking re-election this year and immigrant rights’ advocates see the open race as an opening for change. Jonathan Paik, the director of KRC in Action, sees it as an opportunity to elect a sheriff who is not “actively trying to find workarounds to target immigrant communities” and “does not partner with the Trump administration.”
The candidates are Undersheriff Don Barnes and Duke Nguyen. (The ballot does not include party IDs, but Barnes is a Republican and Nguyen a Democrat.) Barnes, who has worked closely with Hutchens, is running as a dam against California’s reform efforts. Asked what changes he would push for as sheriff, he responded that he would “speak out against misguided criminal justice reforms and advocate in Sacramento for their repeal.” He has championed opposition to SB 54 and he says he would continue posting release dates because he views limits on immigration enforcement as threats to public safety. He said during a debate that assisting ICE is a matter of targeting “high-level criminals.” But Orange County has alerted ICE of a broad range of people; a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office told the Washington Post in March that they would even make public the release dates of people whose charges have been dropped. “They use racially coded language to go after the immigrant community,” Roberto Herrera, the community engagement coordinator at Resilience Orange County, told me of the sheriff’s office. “They paintbrush the immigrant community as criminals as a whole.”
Nguyen, who came to the United States as a refugee in 1981, says that he would end the policy of posting release dates online. He argues that cooperating with ICE can be valuable in targeting “violent folk,” but that it would take a court order for him to honor an ICE “detainer” request. “I have no way to check on the status of a person, and I’m not going to hold that person at will for some sort of federal request,” he said at a public forum. Nguyen has focused his campaign on changing approaches to homelessness by resisting its criminalization and by urging Orange County to spend $700 million on a program to alleviate homelessness.
The sheriff’s office was rocked by numerous scandals, most recently reports of widespread misconduct in how deputies use jail informants, and the discovery that the county’s jail telephone contractor was recording conversations between detainees and their attorneys and allegations that the sheriff knew about this. Barnes supports keeping the same telephone contractor.
Orange County’s politics have been shifting, and local advocates speak of an intense mobilization around issues relating to immigration. “No matter the result of the future elections, there is an awoken giant that is really that is willing to exercise that power,” Herrera said.
North Carolina: Wake County sheriff race struggles for media visibility, with 287(g) at stake
Wake is one of the biggest counties nationwide with a 287(g) agreement. Home to Raleigh, it still leaned Republican when Donnie Harrison was first elected sheriff in 2002. Explosive population growth has upended the county’s politics since then (Hillary Clinton won by 20 percentage points in 2016), but Harrison remains committed to the aggressive enforcement policies he implemented in the 2000s. He has called 287(g) a “deterrent” against crime, he insists that the traffic checkpoints his office conducts do not affect undocumented immigrants, and he rejects efforts to create alternatives to government-issued identification.
Harrison, a Republican, is up for re-election against Democrat Gerald Baker. Despite all the powers of the sheriff’s office, this election is largely invisible in English-language media, as local observers and a search of local publications confirmed. As of Tuesday, articles detailing Baker’s views on immigration and 287(g) can be found only in Spanish-language publications like Qué Pasa Noticias and La ConexiónUSA.com, which have interviewed Baker.
Baker says that he would eliminate the county’s 287(g) agreement, a position he highlights on social media and in campaign literature. “I know that we are all humans who deserve wonderful lives and I want to support that,” Baker told ConexiónUSA. com. Harrison may not want this issue at the forefront, said Felicia Arriaga, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University and a volunteer at El Pueblo, an advocacy group for North Carolina’s Latinx community. Arriaga notes that Harrison hopes to avoid the fate of the sheriffs of Durham and Mecklenburg counties, whose immigration policies contributed to their defeats in May. “This is the most I have heard him not talk about the program,” she said. But she added that county politicians as a whole have been “very quiet” about 287(g) since its implementation in 2008, and that county-level law enforcement still demands more attention than it receives.
The Wake County jail has been under scrutiny this month since the death of a woman who died by suicide in detention. The News & Observer reports that the state as a whole could “be on pace to easily exceed the highest annual death toll for inmates in county jails.”
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!