LINCOLN — The Dakota County Sheriff’s Office has applied to join President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
The office is one of 26 agencies nationwide seeking an agreement with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deputize trained jailers to enforce immigration laws locally.
The application, a first for Nebraska, is part of a push by the Trump administration to toughen up immigration enforcement through what is called the 287(g) program, which was mostly dormant under President Barack Obama.
Dakota County Sheriff Chris Kleinberg says his application changes little and has “been blown out of proportion.”
But advocates for immigrants in the northeast Nebraska county and across the state fear that the change will lead to division, reluctance to report crime to police and racial profiling, as has happened in other areas of the country.
“I’m a legal citizen, but I am concerned that if I get pulled over, just because of the way I look or because of my accent, I’ll be asked my immigration status,” said Ismael Valadez of South Sioux City, the president of Unity in Action, a nonprofit group that works with immigrants in that region.
“We don’t see a need for this in the community,” Valadez said.
Similar comments were made by officials with ACLU of Nebraska, the Nebraska Latino-American Commission and Justice for our Neighbors, a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants across the state.
But Kleinberg said his application has nothing to do with “traffic stops” but rather training a couple of deputies to “know what they should and shouldn’t do” when it comes to detainees in the county jail.
“I couldn’t care less what a person’s skin color is,” the sheriff said. “If there’s a crime, we investigate. That’s what we do, we do our job.”
Currently, 60 local law enforcement agencies across the country are 287(g) participants, including 18 counties from Texas that were added in July.
None of the participating agencies are in Iowa or Nebraska, though an ICE advisory board is meeting Nov. 14 to decide whether Dakota County, and the 25 other new applicants, should join the program.
The 287(g) program has been controversial in the past. It can be traced, in part, to the outspoken former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio.
In 2009, the feds removed that county’s patrol deputies from the 287(g) program citing complaints about racial profiling and civil rights abuses. In 2011, county jailers in Maricopa County’s jail were also withdrawn from the program, citing similar abuses.
Arpaio lost his bid for re-election in November 2016. In July, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt by a judge who found that he had knowingly violated a federal judge’s order to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants. In August, Trump pardoned Arpaio.
An ICE spokesman said Tuesday that the 287(g) program that deputized law enforcement task forces, or officers working the streets, was discontinued in 2012. Dakota County and others applying now are doing so to deputize and train jailers, so they can question and detain people arrested for other crimes.
But advocates for immigrants said they see problems with that, and also fear that the desire to enforce federal immigration laws might extend from the jail to the streets.
Rose Godinez, an attorney with the ACLU, said that now, ICE is typically only notified if someone is arrested for a serious crime. But under the 287(g) program, local deputies can order a citizenship check for even minor offenses, like failure to produce a driver’s license, she said.
She and others also said it could lead to racial profiling within the jail, in which only those with dark skin or troubled English will be checked for immigration status. Those wrongfully detained could also become victims, Godinez added.
“It leads to the community lacking trust with law enforcement, instead of law enforcement focusing on their job of keeping our communities safe,” she said.
The sheriff in a Texas county that recently joined the 287(g) program said he didn’t do it so his deputies could screen motorists for their immigrant status, but to speed the screening and transfer of ICE detainees who land temporarily in his jail.
“It’s not a tool to go work custom enforcement or immigration. I have enough on my plate already,” said Sheriff Bill Mills of Aransas County, Texas, which is on the Gulf Coast southwest of Houston.
Kleinberg, the Nebraska sheriff, said he had a similar motivation. He said that Nebraska jailers already do some screening of jail inmates. If they don’t have proper documentation, ICE is notified, the sheriff said.
“This just cuts out having to wait for an INS agent to come and do that stuff,” Kleinberg said, using the initials for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was merged into other federal agencies, including ICE, in 2003.
The sheriff said that he just recently began housing ICE detainees in his 136-bed jail to increase revenue. The county is hurting for funds, he said, and he typically has 25 or 35 empty cells that can be leased to the feds.
Kleinberg said he did not believe that joining the 287(g) program would bring more detainees and money to Dakota County. Advocates for immigrants, meanwhile, maintained that joining the program would increase expenses for the county. Counties have to provide office space for an ICE supervisor to work in their jail, they said, and have to pick up part of the training expenses.
The advocacy groups all said they will be urging ICE to reject Dakota County’s application. Unity in Action is also conducting an online petition drive to urge the county to withdraw its application, which had drawn 50 signatures as of Tuesday night.
Kleinberg said he’s willing to talk to local advocates and provide more information about the program, which he believes has been misunderstood.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s nothing that we don’t do now.”
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