How Local Law Enforcement Leaders and Anti-Immigration Groups Have Joined Forces to Deport More Undocumented Immigrants

DEPUTY LANG SGT NOVAK (1)
Texas’s Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Stephen Lang and Sergeant B.J. Novak stand near a department vehicle. The relationship between sheriffs and anti-immigration groups has deepened in recent years, a time of increased focus on immigration issues. Photo courtesy Jackson County Sheriff's Office

While the Trump administration this year has demanded stricter enforcement of immigration laws by local law enforcement, some county sheriffs across the U.S. had already been establishing closer relationships with anti-immigration groups in recent years. Some of the national groups have been offering sheriffs advice, inviting them to “border schools” to hear anti-immigration speakers, producing television advertisements featuring sheriffs and sending at least one sheriff a model ordinance intended to spur local law enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Depending on your politics, that could be seen as disturbing collusion between heavy-handed law enforcers and nativist organizations intent on maintaining a white majority, or an informal flow of information between two groups with a mutual interest in strict enforcement of federal immigration laws. Either way, a new report released Tuesday on the deepening relationship between sheriffs and anti-immigration groups comes at a time of increased focus on immigration issues.

“Nativist groups have recruited county sheriffs to help implement dangerous anti-immigrant policies that split up families, intimidate survivors of violence, and deport people to their deaths,” reads a report written by the pro-immigration Center for New Community (CNC). “These are exactly the results that the contemporary anti-immigrant movement has long been seeking, [including] a drastic increase in deportations and attrition through enforcement.”

Cultivating relationships with law enforcement officials like county sheriffs has been a goal of anti-immigration groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) for more than a decade. A December 2005 FAIR newsletter stated, “Creating coalitions with police and sheriff ’s [sic] departments all across the country to confront the issues posed by mass immigration has been a key FAIR goal for many years,” according to the CNC report. After identifying sheriffs who were concerned about illegal immigration, FAIR staff met with them, sent them a steady stream of information, set up regular conference calls and invited them to D.C. to meet with FAIR’s senior staff, according to the organization’s 2011 annual report.

In following years there was increased cooperation between sheriffs and FAIR, with the creation of an umbrella group called the National Sheriff’s Immigration Council and the organization of “border schools,” where sheriffs, sometimes traveling at the taxpayers’ expense, hear presentations by extremist anti-government speakers, according to the report, “Crossing the Line: U.S. Sheriffs Colluding With the Anti-Immigrant Movement.” The sheriffs even visited the headquarters of a border vigilante group in Texas.

Bob Dane, the executive director of FAIR, dismissed the report as “sour grapes” from a “far-left” group that is frustrated the Trump administration is enforcing immigration laws. “[Sheriffs] have sought the expertise of FAIR, and we have sought their perspective,” Dane tells Newsweek, characterizing the relationship as symbiotic and transparent. “The common denominator is the rule of law.” Local and federal law enforcement officials cooperate when investigating drug-related or violent crimes, and that cooperation should also exist when enforcing federal immigration laws, Dane said. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s in the White House.” On its website, FAIR says its goal is to reduce legal immigration to about 300,000 annually from current levels of over one million people.

The Center for Immigration Studies director of policy studies Jessica Vaughan said she wouldn’t waste her time reading the report, as she believes a main goal of the Center for New Community is smearing her organization. “Obviously they are upset that many law enforcement leaders come to us for information and advice,” Vaughan says in an email to Newsweek. “They come to us because of our expertise and years of experience on the public safety issues connected to immigration policy.” 

FAIR is a good resource for local law enforcement leaders who have questions about immigration laws, says the sheriff of a rural Texas county, who said he doesn’t know about any actual partnerships between sheriffs in his region and the organization. “I’ve talked to [FAIR] over the years,” Jackson County Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback tells Newsweek. “They’re simply, as I see it, they’re just advocates for the rule of law.” (Earlier this year, Louderback won approval to have his jail officers cross-designated as federal immigration officers, and he said so far he’s pleased with the increased information and power that comes with the designation.)

Less than a week after he won the 2016 presidential election, President Trump vowed to immediately deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes, and after he took office he quickly inked executive orders that expanded immigration powers for local law enforcement and authorized the construction of a wall along the border between U.S. and Mexico. And while arrests of undocumented immigrants by federal agents are higher under Trump than they were under President Obama, a backlog in the court system has meant fewer actual deportations.

FAIR has also teamed with sheriffs on media and legislative efforts. The organization produced a TV ad campaign featuring local sheriffs and “warning of the dangers posed by uncontrolled immigration,” and it paid about $130,000 for it to be aired in Wisconsin and North Carolina in 2016. The organization produced another ad shortly after Trump was inaugurated, featuring a Louisiana sheriff—who is also the president of the National Sheriff’s Association—who thanks Trump “for agreeing to stop illegal immigration and restore the rule of law,” according to the report.

The anti-immigration groups have also helped sheriffs increase their role shaping national immigration policy, with FAIR placing sheriffs on Capitol Hill witness panels and hearings at least eight times since 2011, the CNC report says. “In their testimony, FAIR-affiliated sheriffs frequently express support for draconian immigration enforcement measures, advancing the dangerous notion that local police should enforce federal immigration laws,” the report states.

Hiroshi Motomura, a UCLA law professor who studies immigration, said partnerships between sheriffs and anti-immigration groups and increased enforcement of federal immigration laws by local law enforcement could lead to racial profiling. “We’ve had cases of jurisdictions where the arrest patterns are skewed by race and ethnicity,” Motomura tells Newsweek, citing as an example Maricopa County in Arizona. “My concern is it’s going to happen some of the time, enough to be concerning, and it’s going to be hard to figure out when it’s happening.”

Sheriffs who hold negative views of immigrants are more likely to head departments where their deputies frequently check the immigration status of the people they encounter, said Mirya Holman, a professor of political science at Tulane University who has studied sheriffs, including a nationwide survey of 500 sheriffs in 2012. “There’s no legal reason to check someone’s legal immigration status when they are reporting a crime, but sheriffs who have negative attitudes toward immigrants were more likely to check the status of victims of crime,” Holman tells Newsweek. “Given the more aggressive actions by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump], we’re going to see sheriffs playing a very important and growing role in immigration enforcement.”