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As Sheriffs Quit ICE, Joe Biden Can Lead the Way in Restoring Trust

This month, two newly-elected sheriffs canceled contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The sheriffs in Gwinnett County, Georgia and Charleston County, South Carolina were elected in November in part due to their campaign pledges to stop doing ICE’s bidding under a program known as 287(g). Voters in Cobb County, Georgia, also replaced a sheriff who conspired with ICE with an opponent of the 287(g) program.

These election results came after a multiracial coalition of organizations worked to build community power, elevate the voices of immigrants, and publicize the harms of a program that leads to civil rights violations, including racial profiling, and puts immigrant families at risk.

The 287(g) program compels local law enforcement agencies to conduct federal immigration enforcement, including interrogating people in jails about their immigration status and initiating the deportation process. But all too often it ends up  creating a chilling effect that dissuades immigrants from reporting crimes, seeking protection, or serving as witnesses for fear that the very agencies meant to protect them may instead try to deport them.

Law enforcement agencies with 287(g) agreements waste millions of local tax dollars on federal enforcement all while undercutting their safety mission by destroying community-law enforcement relationships and diverting attention from local priorities. As Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Sheriff Garry McFadden noted when he ended the county’s agreement, 287(g) “erodes trust with our community and ties up critical resources that should be used to ensure public safety,” and Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano criticized the program as “legal racial profiling.”

The program has created a climate of fear, as immigrants who live in 287(g) jurisdictions could end up in deportation proceedings for such “offenses” as failing to yield while turning or eating lunch outdoors. Many residents also report that they have been profiled while driving because of their race or appearance, pulled over by police pretextually — for traffic violations or no reason at all — so that police can question their immigration status.

All too often, they are left in the custody of sheriffs with egregious track records. Gwinnett County, which had the most active 287(g) program in the country, had to pay millions in settlements after a pattern of sheriff deputies wantonly assaulting detained people was revealed. The previous sheriff of Cobb County, who was the first in Georgia to sign a 287(g) agreement, oversaw over 50 jail deaths while in office; meanwhile, the former sheriff of Charleston County, the largest county in South Carolina to have a 287(g) agreement, was once arrested for assaulting a detained individual.

Sheriffs rarely face election challengers, but these sheriffs or their hand-picked successors all lost running on a pro-ICE platform, with voters resoundingly rejecting their anti-immigrant policies. Other jurisdictions that ended their contracts in recent years include Mecklenburg and Wake counties, North Carolina; Las Vegas, Nevada; Harris County, Texas; Anne Arundel County, Maryland; and Prince William County, Virginia.

While this program preceded Donald Trump, it exploded under his leadership, as former Attorneys General Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions and Trump himself pressured sheriffs to join. The Trump administration even made these contracts worse by removing expiration dates and other guardrails and dropping civil rights investigations into local law enforcement agencies, looking the other way in instances of abuse or, in Trump’s case, outright encouraging brutality. Other sheriffs, including those who said they oppose working with ICE, believed that state laws such as Florida’s SB 168 forced them to sign ICE agreements against their better judgement.

These agreements are not the only ways localities force immigrants into the deportation system, as many honor ICE detainers, or requests that local jails prolong a person’s detention past their scheduled release date so they can be detained by ICE, without a 287(g) agreement in place.

As President-elect Biden takes office, he can move to protect civil rights, public safety, and the country’s moral fabric by fulfilling his pledge to “end all” the 287(g) agreements entered into by the Trump administration and rolling back harmful immigration practices, including the use of detainers.

Termination of the program would also align with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ belief that 287(g) agreements weaken “trust between law enforcement and those they serve” and her vows to “end this program.” As California Attorney General, she also urged local agencies not to honor ICE detainers, noting that as a district attorney she worked with undocumented victims of crime who feared “they would be treated as the criminal” if they went to the police for help.

The immigrant detention and deportation machine, fueled by 287(g) agreements, has destroyed families, ruined lives, and worsened the COVID-19 pandemic. President-elect Biden should listen to the communities, advocates, and law enforcement officials who believe that 287(g) undermines our safety and our values and make good on his pledge to bring the program to its end.