NEW ORLEANS — Hundreds of sheriffs and law enforcement officers gathered in New Orleans this week for the National Sheriffs’ Association conference to peruse exhibits with “smart” body cameras, virtual reality training gear, and a pair of giant schnauzers trained to control prison riots.
They also got a heavy dose of education materials from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the anti-immigrant organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which advocates for drastic decreases in legal immigration and is guiding immigration policy for the Trump administration.
Groups like FAIR long ago identified the nation’s elected sheriffs as a key constituency, and they’ve attempted to capture their hearts and minds in a bid to get them to enforce federal immigration policy. Once considered fringe, FAIR now has strong allies in the White House, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, and Senate candidate Lou Barletta, a former Pennsylvania congressman who advised the president on immigration issues.
“The National Sheriffs' Association has always had this hard-line position, but they haven’t always had the springboard of attention and support that they have now,” said Dave Mahoney, sheriff of Dane County, Wisconsin, and one of nine members of the association's board.
Also making their case to the sheriffs: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which suspended a large white cylinder emblazoned with the ICE logo from the rafters of the expo hall. In the “Government Pavillion,” ICE had a towering booth with a white sofa and a wall of monochrome photos depicting ICE agents and sheriffs' deputies shaking hands.
Courting the sheriffs
The Department of Homeland Security views cooperation from the nation’s sheriffs as essential to carrying out the administration's “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which pursues criminal prosecution for every adult crossing the border illegally. That’s because they’re elected officials, answerable directly to their constituents, and are not legally obliged to comply with federal immigration officials.
The administration made its opening argument to the sheriffs Monday when Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen addressed the convention center's ballroom. It was Nielsen’s first public appearance since DHS admitted it had been separating children from their parents at the southern border. “I will always support you,” she said. “You have an advocate in me.”
Their arguments appear to be resonating. “The previous administration was choosing not to follow the law,” said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. “We take an oath to uphold the law.”
A report published last year by Center for New Community, an extremism watchdog, described how FAIR has been organizing conferences, inviting sheriffs to D.C., and sending field staff across the country, since at least 2011. “By courting sheriffs sympathetic to nativist policies, the anti-immigrant movement has developed law enforcement allies who have considerable power to target and intimidate immigrant communities,” the Center for New Community wrote in their report last year.
In 2015, National Sheriffs' Association even joined FAIR on an amicus brief supporting the 26 states who sued the Obama Administration to block the expansion of DACA, which shields young immigrants from deportation. That same year, the association’s Executive Director Jonathan Thompson was a featured speaker at FAIR’s “Border School,” a two-day training event in McAllen, Texas, where sheriffs from across the country heard lectures about topics like gangs, national security, and sanctuary city policies, and were given a tour of the Mexican border.
Hard-liners on immigration
On Monday, FAIR published a long defense of the practice of separating children from their parents at the border, saying criticism “consists of hyperbole and baseless speculation.”
FAIR has also been a long-standing advocate of two programs that boost cooperation between federal immigration authorities and ICE, “287(g)” and “Secure Communities,” both of which ICE was promoting at the convention.
The 287(g) program allows deputies or officers from participating departments to undergo training so that they can carry out immigration enforcement activities in their communities. The program was rolled back in 2012 amid criticism that it was a misuse of resources and led to racial profiling in some areas. FAIR slammed the program’s critics as “defenders of illegal aliens.”
Trump’s January 2017 executive order on immigration directed DHS to ramp the program back up. Last year in March, according to ICE, just 31 law enforcement departments were participating. Today, that’s more than doubled, up to 78 law enforcement departments – 70 of which are sheriff departments. A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment on whether their efforts at the convention this year had been successful.
ICE is also hoping to promote the Secure Communities program, which was piloted in 2008, suspended in 2013, and then restored last January. It gives law enforcement access to the federal immigration database, meaning they can run an arrestee's fingerprints to determine citizenship status. If it turns out that individual is undocumented, the jail can detain them for additional time until ICE is able to come pick them up.
"Taking a stand"
Inside the convention center, Trump and FAIR’s solicitations seemed to generally stick among the attending sheriffs. “The situation is being misrepresented,” said Sheriff Richard Lathim, who served 20 years in Franklin County, Washington, and now represents private prison communications company. “Parents are bringing their children to an unsecure border situation, sex trafficking, cartels, drug trafficking.”
Lathim added that he appreciated that the Trump administration was “taking a stand about upholding the laws passed by Congress.”
But not all the sheriffs at the conference agreed. “Separating children from their families? I feel that is an egregious action,” Mahoney said. “I can’t think of anything worse than that.”
Mahoney said that ICE recently set up shop in his county – which he assumes is a response to his personal position on immigration enforcement. “I don’t do immigration holds,” said Mahoney, with one exception. “If MS-13 comes into my community and commits an offense, yes, I will hold them.”
Mahoney’s name was notably absent from a list of about 400 sheriffs who undersigned a letter published March 21, addressed to “Member of Congress.” FAIR was handing out the letter, which is stamped with the Sheriffs’ Association logo, during the conference. “Congress must act to pass legislation to secure our borders,” the letter demanded, adding, “and have zero tolerance and increased repercussions for criminal aliens.”
Robert Najmulski, director of FAIR’s law enforcement relations, who was at the conference, couldn’t explain exactly why they were handing out a letter that didn’t have FAIR’s name anywhere on it. “It’s being handed out everywhere,” he said.
As it turns out, the driving force behind that letter was Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, a member of the National Sheriffs' Association who joined FAIR’s advisory board last year.
Speaking to NRA-TV, National Sheriffs' Association executive director Jonathan Thompson doubled down on the same line offered by Sessions, Nielsen, and groups like FAIR.
“We’re a nation of laws and we gotta adhere to those laws,” he said. “We don’t make the laws; we enforce the laws.”
Cover image: Sheriff deputies leave Highland High School in Palmdale after the sheriff took the school off lockdown on Friday, May 11, 2018. (Photo by Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Image)