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Sheriffs statewide are working with ICE, pushing many straight from jail to deportation

A new report describes how local law enforcement shares information with ICE and detains people living in the country without documentation

Prison cells
Thomas Hawk (CC-BY-NC)

In 2018, Raymundo Martinez-Moreno was on his way to work when he was stopped by a Brown County Sheriff’s deputy and arrested on a warrant for driving without a license.

Martinez-Moreno is from Mexico and has been living in Green Bay without documentation for two decades. He said the officers took him to Brown County Jail.

Martinez-Moreno expected to be let out quickly. Instead, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials showed up the next day to process him and transport him to Dodge County Detention Facility.

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“That was the saddest thing for me,” Martinez-Moreno, who does not speak English, said through an interpreter. “Because I really thought they were going to let me go.”

Brown County officials had shared his information with ICE, triggering a deportation order.

Martinez-Moreno spent three weeks in detention in Dodge County, until his family raised enough money to pay his $3,500 bond. His deportation case was narrowly dismissed because of a bureaucratic error, but he’s stopped driving, for fear of being arrested again. He also hasn’t been able to secure a job since, and that’s left him unable to support his family.

This is not an uncommon experience among immigrants lacking permanent legal status in the state, according to an ACLU of Wisconsin report released last week.

According to the report, sheriffs’ offices across Wisconsin have signed onto a patchwork of formal and informal agreements with ICE to share information about inmates who they know or believe are living in the country illegally. Many have agreed to hold immigrants in their jails for ICE to pick up, often keeping them in custody longer than typically allowed by law.

Between 2006 and 2020, ICE tried to deport over 12,000 immigrants who they picked up from jails and prisons across the state.

Though some local law enforcement collaborated with ICE before 2016, Tim Muth, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said these practices surged during the Trump administration. Seven Wisconsin sheriffs signed agreements for the first time in 2020, the report said.

In exchange for sharing information with ICE about people in their jails, Muth said, the federal government partially reimburses counties for the cost of incarcerating inmates living in the country without legal permission through the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, or SCAAP.

He said this essentially incentivizes local law enforcement and jails to work with ICE.

“If they want to get any of this money, they need to affirmatively reach out to ICE to say, ‘Hey, this person’s in our jail, can you check their immigration status?’” Muth said. “And that then puts somebody into ICE’s databases and onto ICE’s radar in a way that increases the likelihood that ICE will seek to remove that individual from the country.”

Between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, the report said Dane County received $634,850 from SCAAP, the most of any county in the state. Walworth County, despite having a much smaller immigrant population, received the second-highest amount of funding, totaling $253,945 in that same period. Brown County, where Martinez-Moreno was arrested, followed, accepting $237,900 during that time.

None of the counties’ sheriffs’ offices agreed to comment on their collaboration with ICE.

The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office was the first to sign a 287(g) agreement — a formal agreement that delegates some immigration enforcement roles to state and local law enforcement — with ICE in 2018. The department received $118,691 in SCAAP funding between 2016 and 2020.

“Sheriff (Eric) Severson and the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office are strongly committed to the 287(g) program,” said Lt. Nicholas Ollinger. “The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office is also extremely dedicated to our federal partners at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

The department contacts ICE every time they put a noncitizen in jail, he said.

“It all comes down to keeping our community safe, and this program allows for that by releasing noncitizen offenders to ICE, rather than back into our communities,” Ollinger said. “And the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office follows all federal civil rights laws, regulations and guidance relating to non-discrimination.”

Right now, Ollinger said, the office plans to continue working with ICE.

According to the report, the Walworth County Sheriff appeared to contact ICE about every foreign-born person who entered their jail, regardless of immigration status, including naturalized U.S. citizens.

“The concern is that a law enforcement officer may profile somebody based on their fluency in English or what their last name is or their appearance in making that decision about whether to bring somebody into the jail and book them and have them end up at the starting point of the jail to deportation pipeline,” Muth said.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment, but its website states the 287(g) program, a formal agreement that delegates some immigration enforcement roles to state and local law enforcement, does not lead to racial profiling. Eight Wisconsin sheriffs’ offices have signed official 287(g) agreements, including Brown County.

“Racial profiling is simply not something that will be tolerated, and any indication of racial profiling will be treated with the utmost scrutiny and fully investigated,” the ICE website reads. It also says local law enforcement officers are required to go through training and their work is supervised by ICE officers.

The website states the program allows the agency to avoid conducting large-scale arrests, which can put officers and community members in danger, and even lead to collateral arrests. Instead, it says the agency can take noncitizen offenders directly from jails and prisons into their custody.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of Voces de la Frontera, said these programs can take a toll on trust in law enforcement. The organization advocates for expanding immigrants’ rights.

“It (the 287(g) program) undermines public safety, because it puts profiling and deportation as a priority over public safety,” she said. “In places where you have programs where immigrants feel safer coming forward to local law enforcement, there’s less crime.”

Neumann-Ortiz said the partnerships were put into effect without community input “and people rightfully recognize it as something that is promoting division, promoting racial profiling, that leads to families being separated.”

Some local law enforcement officials across the country have been outspoken about refusing to collaborate with ICE. In Wisconsin, agencies in Marathon, Portage and Colby-Abbotsford counties have taken action to strengthen their relationships with local Hispanic communities.

Under the Biden administration, the report said, the “jail-to-deportation pipeline” has slowed. ICE priorities have shifted, with less of an emphasis on enforcement away from the border, but it said the pipeline remains intact, “ready to be reactivated with a change in the political winds.”