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New Democratic sheriffs in Georgia and South Carolina have vowed to cut ties with ICE

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts an immigration sweep in February 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. | Bryan Cox/US Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Getty Images

The new sheriffs have promised to end cooperative agreements with ICE at the local level.

Three Democratic sheriffs who have promised to cut ties with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement will soon assume office in some of Georgia’s and South Carolina’s most populous counties after defeating hardline Republicans.

All of them have promised to end longstanding agreements with the federal government under which sheriffs can question people about their immigration status and detain them on immigration charges.

These agreements, known as 287(g) agreements after the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that created them, predate President Donald Trump. But Trump has vastly expanded the 287(g) program, issuing an executive order during the first weeks of his presidency that allowed him to rapidly sign more such agreements with local law enforcement to arrest and detain unauthorized immigrants living in the US. During fiscal year 2019 alone, the agreements allowed local law enforcement to take almost 25,000 immigrants into custody.

Opponents say they foster distrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities, result in racial profiling, yield few arrests of violent criminals who should be prioritized for deportation, and prove costly for local authorities, who foot the bill of carrying them out.

In Georgia’s Gwinnett County, Democrat Keybo Taylor, a police major, prevailed over Republican Chief Deputy Sheriff Lou Solis. The county’s 287(g) agreement had been used to refer more than 21,000 people in the county to ICE over the past decade, making it one of ICE’s biggest local law enforcement partners outside of counties on the US-Mexico border.

“Along the campaign trail, I spent hours listening to your needs. You voiced concerns for community inclusion, neighborhood safety, the 287(g) program and nonviolent interactions with law enforcement personnel,” Taylor told his supporters in a letter last week. “In the upcoming months, my team and I will implement robust plans which will address these concerns. My goal as your sheriff is to lead an office that truly serves the needs of every constituent in our county.”

In nearby Cobb County, Democrat Craig Owens, also a police major, ousted incumbent Republican Sheriff Neil Warren, who has held office for 17 years and was the first sheriff in the state to enter into a 287(g) agreement. Taylor and Owens are also their counties’ first black sheriffs.

And in Charleston County, South Carolina, Kristin Graziano, a former master deputy at the sheriff’s office who was put on leave once she announced her candidacy, defeated incumbent Sheriff Al Cannon, who had never seen a serious challenger and had run unopposed in the general election for eight terms.

Democrats also fended off pro-ICE sheriff candidates in Ohio’s Hamilton County and Arizona’s Maricopa County, where the infamous former Sheriff Joe Arpaio once targeted immigrants and sought to implement one of the most restrictive “show me your papers” laws in the country.

The election of these sheriffs, who made cutting ties with ICE a central message of their campaigns, is a triumph for immigrant rights activists. They view it as a signal that the public doesn’t think local law enforcement should be involved in efforts to deport members of their communities and spread fear among immigrants.

“I think voters tend to think of immigration as a federal matter, and it is, and so they often don’t want their local police, who should be focused upon the public safety of everyone in the community, distracted by efforts to be immigration agents,” said Ronald Newman, the political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which worked with grassroots organizations in Georgia and South Carolina to galvanize support for the anti-ICE sheriff candidates.

“At the end of the day, local police should do their job, not the federal government’s job, and that sentiment is what we try to tap into when we do this work,” he added.

Immigrant advocates argue that 287(g) hurts public safety

Immigrant rights advocates argue that the 287(g) program isn’t improving public safety, but rather undermining it.

There are two kinds of 287(g) agreements that local law enforcement can sign: the jail enforcement model and the warrant service officer model. The jail enforcement model allows local law enforcement to interrogate people who have been arrested on state or local charges about their immigration status as well as process them for deportation by ICE. The more limited warrant service officer model, which the Trump administration created in May 2019, trains local law enforcement to carry out civil immigration warrants issued by ICE for the arrests of unauthorized immigrants, even in places that have adopted sanctuary policies. But it doesn’t allow local law enforcement to interrogate people about their immigration status.

Both types of agreements formalize cooperation between the federal government and local law enforcement. But even in the absence of these agreements, local law enforcement could still, for example, opt to share information with ICE or allow the agency into local jails without a judicial warrant, unless state and local governments have otherwise prohibited those practices.

While the Trump administration has invoked the program as a means to keep criminals off the streets, the Migration Policy Institute found that half of all the requests to detain unauthorized immigrants issued through the program were directed at people who had committed misdemeanors and traffic offenses.

In places like North Carolina’s Alamance County and Arizona’s Maricopa County (which has since ended its agreement), the program led to widespread racial profiling of Latinos, damaging the relationship between law enforcement and the community. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association — which represent law enforcement in the US and Canada — have stated that unauthorized immigrants are more fearful to contact police or assist in investigations without assurance that they will not be targeted for deportation.

Trump has also made changes to the 287(g) program. While the agreements were previously designed to expire after three years, prompting regular conversations at the local level over whether they should be renewed, ICE is no longer placing end dates on the agreements. The agency has also allowed local law enforcement to arrest unauthorized immigrants and refer them for deportation proceedings without filing charges in criminal court, leading to baseless arrests.

Ending these agreements would foster more trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities.

“There is an embrace that is signaled when a sheriff exits from one of these agreements that I think has a really significant effect within these communities,” Newman said. “The message being conveyed is that you are fully a member of this community and my role is to protect and serve you.”

Biden could unilaterally end the 287(g) program

The 287(g) program was created under a law signed by President Bill Clinton and supported by then-Sen. Joe Biden and other Democrats. But Biden vowed this August that he would end all of the Trump’s administration’s new 287(g) agreements and “aggressively limit the use of 287(g) and similar programs that force local law enforcement to take on the role of immigration enforcement.”

Currently, 148 total jurisdictions have signed 287(g) agreements, including 126 that did so under the Trump administration.

“We would encourage him to take another step further and actually exit from all 287(g) agreements entirely, and he can do that completely on his own — no conversation with Congress required,” Newman said of Biden.

Aside from 287(g) agreements, there are other programs under which federal immigration authorities can deputize local law enforcement.

And under intergovernmental service agreements, the federal government pays local authorities to provide space in jails and prisons to detain unauthorized immigrants beyond a 48-hour limit on detaining people in non-ICE facilities for immigration violations.

Biden also would have the power to stop these programs unilaterally, but he has not yet elaborated on his plans. On the campaign trail, he promised that he would focus on deporting only immigrants who pose a threat to national security and public safety and that he would improve accountability for immigration agencies like ICE, without delving into specifics.

But even if Biden keeps some or all of these programs intact, Newman said the ACLU intends to scope out opportunities to lift up sheriff candidates who oppose this kind of cooperation with federal immigration authorities in the 2022 election cycle.

Frederick County, Maryland, where the sheriff’s office recently prohibited profiling or targeting people based on their immigration status and arresting people based on ICE warrants, seems to already be moving in the direction of cutting ties with ICE. But other targets could include Alamance County, North Carolina; Bristol, Plymouth, and Barnstable counties in Massachusetts; and Kenosha County, Wisconsin.

“It’s a second failsafe that leaves us comfortable that local involvement in federal immigration enforcement won’t occur, irrespective of what president is in office and what request they make,” Newman said.

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