The National Sheriffs’ Association strengthens the deportation machine

U.S President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence look on as Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County Massachusetts delivers remarks during an event in the East Room of the White House September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. White House Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a new effort in May 2019 to expand the reach of its deportation machine. ICE’s new Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program allows local police officers to effectively become federal immigration enforcement agents and, in some cases, directly circumvent sanctuary policies adopted by local lawmakers. It is the latest in a series of developments by ICE to deputize local police to place even more immigrants in detention and on the path to deportation proceedings.

The growing reach of immigration enforcement

The 287(g) program and related efforts are the primary way in which the administration, the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), and the anti-immigrant movement are seeking to expand immigration enforcement’s already substantial presence in communities. The 1996 immigration bill, which was drafted by the anti-immigrant movement and signed into law by President Clinton, created the 287(g) program. (Its name refers to Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.) The law allows ICE to enter into agreements with local law enforcement agencies, and deputize them to enforce federal immigration law. Such agreements divert local resources away from the public good and towards the enforcement of federal immigration laws. 287(g) and other cooperation agreements with ICE effectively subsidize a federal agency whose Enforcement and Removal Operations Office has already nearly tripled since 2003, at the expense of local communities.

287(g) agreements are a crucial instrument to advance a broader “attrition through enforcement” strategy. First popularized by Mark Krikorian of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies in 2005, the attrition strategy seeks to increase the marginalization of immigrants, to the point where they would—as 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney put—“self-deport.” Compounded with other policies, whether local efforts like Arizona’s notorious and unconstitutional SB 1070 or other discriminatory federal programs like Countering Violent Extremism, 287(g) agreements bolster a security state that explicitly targets immigrants and communities of color.

In its first week in power, the Trump administration sought to expand the 287(g) program as part of its broader draconian agenda. An executive order signed by the president on January 25, 2017, ordered DHS to “immediately” begin outreach to state and local officials for the purposes of entering 287(g) agreements. The number of agreements ballooned 135% after the executive order and ICE currently has agreements with 80 law enforcement agencies in 21 states.

This expansive growth has not satisfied ICE. A year into the rapid spread of 287(g), ICE announced a series of Basic Ordering Agreements (BOA) with 17 Florida counties. The BOAs incentivize sheriff’s departments to honor unconstitutional detention requests from ICE, known as “detainers.” ICE detainer requests have been found by courts to violate the Fourth Amendment, yet ICE continues developing ways to bypass constitutional protections. States and jurisdictions across the country have sought to defend their immigrant neighbors and protect public resources by adopting sanctuary policies and limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE. These policies protect communities and public resources from potential legal liabilities stemming from honoring ICE detainers. Predictably, the Trump administration and the anti-immigrant movement has targeted these policies in multiple ways. BOAs are one such way and ICE announced another on May 6, the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program.

The WSO program is “intended for local law-enforcement that wish to honor immigration detainers but are prohibited due to state and local policies that limit cooperation with the agency,” according to the announcement. ICE also developed WSO with “rural jurisdictions that lack the budget and personnel resources to become 287(g) partners” in mind. According to its announcement, ICE created the WSO program following requests from the National Sheriffs’ Association.

The National Sheriffs’ Association: Drumming up support for mass deportation

The National Sheriffs’ Association is granting Pinellas County, Florida, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri the Sheriff of the Year award at the group’s national conference in Louisville, KY next week. Gualtieri, a former practicing lawyer, has reportedly led on immigration issues within the NSA in recent years, including the WSO, and designed the BOA program. The NSA’s decision to honor Gualtieri’s efforts to expand ICE’s already overzealous presence in communities reflects the association’s broader embrace of the anti-immigrant movement’s draconian agenda.

As Congress considered comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013, the NSA approved a position paper stating it opposed granting citizenship to undocumented people residing in the U.S. The proposal in Congress, which bolstered interior enforcement and border militarization efforts in conjunction with allowing some undocumented immigrants to regularize their status, ultimately failed. However, the NSA’s immigration stance became more strident.

A 2017 report published by the Center for New Community detailed ways in which the NSA has increasingly worked with the anti-immigrant movement. Among others the NSA:

  • Endorsed a December 2014 event in Washington, D.C., organized by Massachusetts Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and anti-immigrant group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Richard Mack, of the Patriot movement-aligned Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association was also in attendance.
  • NSA Executive Director Jonathan Thompson spoke at a 2015 event in McAllen, Texas, organized by FAIR. Richard Mack was also a speaker.
  • Louisiana Sheriff Greg Champagne, who was also NSA President at the time, appeared in a television advertisement produced by FAIR. The ad is one of two FAIR ads NSA still displays on its website.
  • NSA signed on to amicus brief drafted by FAIR’s legal arm.
  • FAIR had an exhibition booth at several NSA conferences. FAIR will also have a presence at the NSA conference in Louisville.

It is also likely FAIR worked directly with the NSA and Florida Sheriff Gualtieri to develop the WSO program and other sanctuary workarounds. In March 2017, FAIR Executive Director Bob Dane wrote to NSA Executive Director Jonathan Thompson offering “a full pro-bono consultation” on detainer issues1. “We’ve developed an unofficial ‘task force’ here specifically to lend support and advice to you,” Dane wrote. “I’d like to suggest/offer that our team come over to the NSA next week and meet with you. By that point, more info will be evident from the field work you and the sheriffs are doing this week.” Thompson responded, accepting Dane’s offer. “The important player is not me but folks copied herein,” Thompson responded, cc’ing Gualtieri and others. “These are sheriffs and lawyers that know this stuff cold.” According to its 2017 annual report, FAIR met with NSA leadership the following month to discuss detainers.

The NSA’s anti-immigrant advocacy and work with FAIR continues beyond its involvement in enforcement programs like BOA and WSO in Florida. Last year, the NSA sponsored Massachusetts Sheriff Hodgson’s crowdfunding effort to build a border wall. NSA leadership have visited the White House multiple times in the last two years, including a bizarre appearance in September 2018 where dozens of sheriffs stood silently on risers behind the President as he ranted about a New York Times op-ed to assembled press. The September White House appearance was part of a three-day visit sponsored by FAIR. FAIR’s former law enforcement relations manager, the late Robert Najmulski, stood alongside the sheriffs during photo opportunities and the president’s remarks.

The NSA willfully supports the administration’s demagoguery and the anti-immigrant movement’s attrition agenda. Sheriffs, who are democratically elected, are facilitating the growth of ICE’s enforcement dragnet in their communities with significant institutional support from the NSA, ICE, and elsewhere. The NSA is not just complicit, they are actively bolstering an unjust and far-reaching enforcement regime that continues to wreak havoc on immigrants, their families, and broader communities.

ICE’s current memorandum of agreement with 287(g) jurisdictions expires on June 30. The upcoming expiration provides a unique opportunity for movements to pressure officials to cancel 287(g) agreements without engaging directly in electoral campaigns. Future cancellations or failures to renew 287(g) agreements would build on recent victories for immigrant communities fighting against the growing immigration enforcement apparatus. In places including North Carolina, Maryland, and Minnesota, officials were recently elected, in part, for their commitment to ending 287(g) agreements or cooperation with ICE in their jurisdictions. These victories are the result of inspiring grassroots organizing efforts showing the strength and resilience of communities. Sheriffs have been encouraged by the administration, its anti-immigrant advisors, and the NSA to betray the communities they supposedly serve, by siphoning resources away from the public good and towards federal enforcement efforts. This trend can and must be reversed. Grassroots efforts show such fights are winnable—they just require contestation and support from movements for justice.


1 Wednesday, March 29, 2017 Email to Gualtieri,Robert; Champagne Greg; Faigin, Robert; Richard Stanek, on file at PRA