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 the ballot in November. Below, nine counties where the stakes are especially high and the contrast especially stark.
In five of these counties, the debate revolves around whether to participate in 287(g), an ICE program that allows local deputies to act as federal immigration agents. Elsewhere, local authorities partner with ICE through paths that are less visible and open but that have nevertheless drawn considerable protest.
California: The Orange County Sheriff’s race could be a referendum on “anti-sanctuary states”
In 2017, California adopted Senate Bill 54, which gave it its “sanctuary state” status, and limits contact between local law enforcement and federal authorities.
The Orange County sheriff’s office—led by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens—has organized against the law ever since. The office encouraged the county to join the Trump administration’s lawsuit against California’s sanctuary policies, and posts the dates on which people are scheduled to be released from jail online, in an attempt to circumvent new limits on communicating with ICE. Hutchens herself has sought to expand the number of immigrants that the county holds for the agency.
But this year, Hutchens is not seeking re-election, and immigration rights’ advocates see the open race as an opening for change: Voters will choose between Republican Undersheriff Don Barnes and Democrat Duke Nguyen. (The ballot does not include party IDs.)
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, California’s sanctuary measure, 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.”
Nguyen, who came to the United States as a refugee in 1981, has more progressive goals. He says that he would end the policy of posting release dates online, and argues that while cooperating with ICE can be valuable in targeting “violent folk,” 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.
The election comes at a time when 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 … willing to exercise that power,” said Roberto Herrera, the community engagement coordinator at Resilience Orange County.
Maryland: Three counties could stop cooperating with ICE after November—and one could start
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. 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,” said Jose Perez, the deputy general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
Three Maryland counties are currently part of 287(g): Anne Arundel County (which is home to Annapolis, the state capital), Frederick County, and Harford County.
But that could soon change. 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. And the leadership of each of the 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, which is not currently a part of the 287(g) program. There, a GOP challenger to the Democratic sheriff is running on a pledge to join it.
Minnesota: ICE looms over Hennepin sheriff’s race
Sheriff Rich Stanek of Hennepin County (home of Minneapolis) has drawn protests over his cooperation with ICE. His relationship with the federal agency now looms large over his reelection bid this November, as he goes head to head against a Democratic challenger, David Hutchinson.
In challenging Stanek, Hutchinson has used immigration to spark partisan fault lines. “You will notice the difference between a Republican sheriff and a Democratic sheriff, a sheriff who stands with ICE and a sheriff who stands with immigrants,” he said in May. Hutchinson has committed to not asking people their birthplace or immigration status. Banks also wishes to shift immigration policy, committing to “find better ways to serve, inform, and uplift undocumented immigrants.”
New Mexico: Doña Ana sheriff race puts spotlight on Operation Stonegarden
Doña Ana County Sheriff Enrique Vigil lost in June’s Democratic primary, weighed down by a series of scandals, including controversies regarding his role in federal immigration enforcement.
Through a program called Operation Stonegarden, the sheriff’s office received a grant from the federal government in exchange for assistance in border activities. “Deputies working under Vigil assisted the United States Border Patrol with hundreds of apprehensions over the course of three years” despite Vigil’s insistence that his office was playing no immigration role, Kate Bieri reported for KVIA in May.
Now, Doña Ana county voters will have the chance to choose a replacement sheriff: Kim Stewart, who won the Democratic primary, or former Republican sheriff Todd Garrison. At a candidate forum on September 15, both were asked if they have an ethical issue with the Stonegarden grant. Both answered that they do not.
Nevertheless, Stewart suggests on her website that she may minimize assistance. “If DASO [the sheriff’s office] is receiving grant money from the federal government and there is any clause which can compel DASO to assist ICE or CBP [Customs and Border Protection], we need to carefully avoid situations where DASO renders routine assistance,” she writes. “When we become the immigration police, we shut the door forever on those who need our help.”
In contrast, during his tenure as sheriff, Garrison staked aggressive stances on immigration and border security. He denounced federal immigration reform and criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to establish a national monument as weakening public safety. In 2012, advocates cited complaints that Garrison’s deputies were asking for people’s immigration status during traffic encounters.
New York: Ulster County sheriff’s race could lead to reform
Paul Van Blarcum has served three terms as the Democratic sheriff of Ulster County. Now, he’s being challenged by another Democrat: retired state trooper Juan Figueroa—partly as a referendum of his track record on immigration.
Van Blarcum proactively cooperates with ICE. His office notifies ICE of foreign-born persons it arrests. “We do immigration-naturalization checks on everybody that comes in,” he told Hudson Valley One. “We would get ahold of customs and immigration and ask if they’re interested in picking the person up,” he explained elsewhere.
Figueroa casts Van Blarcum’s “hard-line policy of reporting immigrants” as a threat to public safety. “Immigrants should feel safe to seek the protection of the law,” a Figueroa flier says. Figueroa would provide ICE information when ICE has a warrant and when an individual is convicted of a felony. “I am not an extension of ICE and I will not be contacting ICE for minor offenses,” he said.
North Carolina: 287(g) at stake in Wake County sheriff race
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. 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.
Florida: Hillsborough sheriff partners with ICE, now seeks full term with bipartisan support
Federal courts have repeatedly ruled against local officials who hold people in jail beyond their scheduled release based on ICE “detainer” requests—but in January, ICE and 17 Florida sheriffs launched a new bid to circumvent those rulings. They claim the agreement will enable local officials to legally hold people suspected of being undocumented for 48 extra hours while ICE prepares to detain them; the ACLU disputes that claim. “The new scheme is simply a change in paperwork, with no relevant legal changes,” says the ACLU.
Among the 17 sheriffs who joined this partnership is Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County, which contains Tampa. A Republican who was appointed to this office by Governor Rick Scott in 2017, Chronister is now seeking a full term, facing off against Democratic challenger Gary Pruitt. While Chronister’s cooperation with ICE has drawn protests, local leaders from both parties have rallied around the sheriff.
Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal, said on Monday that he would “definitely withdraw” from Chronister’s new partnership with ICE if he were elected. He said that the agreement implements a “dragnet approach” as federal authorities can target people on the local jails’ databases even if they didn’t “have somebody that they’re looking at.” “All you’re doing is screwing with people,” Pruitt said, noting that “the stigma of how we participated” makes communities distrust local law enforcement and endangers public safety.
Oregon: State’s 30-year-old ‘sanctuary’ law is under threat
President Trump’s aggressive approach toward immigration enforcement is echoing in Oregon. On November’s ballot is Measure 105, a referendum that would repeal the state’s “sanctuary” law (ORS 181A.820).
Oregon adopted its sanctuary law in 1987 to prohibit local law enforcement from “detecting or apprehending” individuals over their immigration status. Repealing this law would expand local law enforcement’s ability to help federal immigration authorities arrest undocumented immigrants. Measure 105 is championed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that favors severe immigration restrictions.
The sheriffs of Oregon’s three largest counties (Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas) all oppose Measure 105; and Washington’s sheriff, Pat Garrett, co-wrote an op-ed defending the “sanctuary” law in August. A group of sheriffs representing smaller, more rural counties endorsed repeal in August through a statement that ties illegal immigration to criminality; they write that immigration law-violations are “precursors to other crimes illegal immigrants routinely commit in their efforts to conceal their illegal presence.” Numerous studies contradict such a connection.
What is striking about this repeal push is that Oregon’s sanctuary law does not even affect local law enforcement’s ability to partner with federal authorities when it comes to people already jailed on grounds others than immigration. Oregon’s sheriffs can notify ICE when they detain foreign-born individuals—and Garrett himself engages in this practice daily, The Oregonian reported.
Many of the recent debates about how to restrict local cooperation with ICE (for instance in Minneapolis or Orange County, California) have focused on going an extra step and restricting local officials’ cooperation with ICE even within jails.
This post was adapted from The Appeal Political Report.