‘We’re all border counties now.’ Sheriffs’ new role as immigration experts

Why We Wrote This

In swaths of the South and West, sheriffs are the primary local law enforcers. With more attention to border security, one result may be heightened interest in their powerful but largely overlooked role.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Donald Trump, with Carolyn ‘Bunny’ Welsh, sheriff of Pennsylvania’s Chester County, left, and AJ Louderback, sheriff of Texas’s Jackson County, attends a round-table discussion on border security with local leaders, Jan. 11, 2019, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.

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As Terrell County sheriff for 13 years, Clint McDonald had four deputies to help him cover a 2,400-square-mile county in Texas. There also were more than 100 Border Patrol agents when he retired in December 2016. He says there are now fewer than 40. “It’s really difficult to cover that much territory and assist the Border Patrol on the front line when you don’t have enough people,” says Mr. McDonald, executive director of the Southwestern Border Sheriffs’ Coalition. As border security and immigration have become the foremost political and policy issue of the Trump administration, the reaction from sheriffs has been as mixed – and polarized – as the general public’s. Many have called for tougher enforcement and more security, while others have said these are issues that should only concern border sheriffs. The result has been a lot more attention on sheriffs as immigration policymakers. “Everyone wants to talk about the wall. They’re not talking about a solution to the problem,” says McDonald. “We have to get past that somehow ... because these sheriffs on the border need help today.”

Every president introduces their own tastes and traditions to the White House, and President Trump seems to have one for midwinter.

In each of the past three years, that has been when the sheriffs visit. National Sheriffs’ Association leaders made one of the very first official visits to the Trump White House in February 2017. They discussed immigration and border security, and a year later they were invited back to discuss gun and drug crime and, again, federal immigration policy.

This year’s roundtable occurred in early January, with border security the sticking point in the now temporarily lifted government shutdown. And as border security and immigration have become the foremost political and policy issue of the Trump era, the reaction from sheriffs has been as mixed – and polarized – as the general public’s. Many have called for tougher enforcement and more security, while others have said these are issues that should only concern border sheriffs. A longer-term result, some experts say, could be a heightened interest in the powerful but largely overlooked role of sheriffs generally.

“There’s always been some aspects of immigration enforcement devolved to the local level, particularly for border counties,” says Mirya Holman, a political scientist who studies sheriffs at Tulane University in Louisiana. “Now there’s a lot more attention on sheriffs as immigration policymakers.”

Border county sheriffs feeling strain

Operating in thousands of counties across the country, from the urban to the rural, sheriffs’ duties vary dramatically by jurisdiction, ranging from running jails and guarding courthouses to policing roads and investigating felonies. Part law enforcement officer and part politician, they are held accountable by voters in elections – elections that incumbents almost always win. A 2012 survey found that some 99 percent were men and 95 percent were white.

And for large swaths of the country, particularly along the southwest border, the county sheriff’s office is the principal law enforcement agency. Even with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers empowered to operate up to 100 miles from the physical border, border county sheriffs say they’re feeling the strain.

As Terrell County sheriff for 13 years, Clint McDonald had four deputies to help him cover a 2,400-square-mile county and 60 miles of Texas-Mexico border. There also were more than 100 Border Patrol agents when he retired in December 2016. He says there are now fewer than 40. 

“It’s really difficult to cover that much territory and assist the Border Patrol on the front line when you don’t have enough people,” says Mr. McDonald, executive director of the Southwestern Border Sheriffs’ Coalition.

Members of the 31-county coalition released a letter earlier this month describing Mr. Trump’s demand for a $5 billion border wall as “a lightning rod of division” and “not a cogent public policy position.” Building and repairing physical barriers is an important component of improving border security, added the letter, signed by Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot of Arizona, but only part of the solution. Focusing on a wall detracts from a meaningful debate on the other improvements that could be made.

“Everyone wants to talk about the wall. They’re not talking about a solution to the problem,” says McDonald. “We have to get past that somehow and determine what we’re going to do and do it, because these sheriffs on the border need help today.”

No longer only a border issue

Alongside the debate over how to tighten southern border security is a debate over the degree of the security problems that exist. Trump has often described the border as being in “crisis,” and suggested he may declare a national emergency to build the wall. Larger numbers of migrants than normal have also traveled to the border, mostly from Central America, in 2018 and sought to enter the United States legally by claiming asylum. 

Illegal border crossings have dropped significantly in recent years, however. More than 1.6 million illegal border-crossers were apprehended in 2000, then another 1.3 million in 2001, according to CBP statistics. Last year 396,579 people were caught crossing the border illegally, a modest increase from 310,531 in 2017. The opioid epidemic in the US started by the overprescription of legal pain medications has been exacerbated by illegal opioids trafficked over the southern border, analysts say, though most evidence suggests they come through official ports of entry.

Then there is the perception of security. Residents of border cities in Texas have disputed characterizations of the border as a region in crisis, but residents of rural border areas have taken a different view.

Those are the areas where migrants actually cross illegally, and they can burglarize homes and steal vehicles, says McDonald. Migrants have knocked down fences and killed livestock on her family ranch in recent years, Pat Ozuna told the Los Angeles Times.

“Come spend the weekend [there] and see if you feel safe,” she added.

Immigration is no longer just a border issue, however, and there is much more attention on sheriffs as immigration policymakers, according to Dr. Holman. 

“Prior to 2018 I could maybe name five or six [sheriff] elections where immigration was a major issue, and almost all of them were in border counties,” she says. “In 2018 there were maybe 45 elections ... and others where people have maybe not paid attention to sheriff elections but are getting involved.”

Public safety versus politics

Immigration is as much a public safety issue as a political one, however, and sheriffs across the country have found it a fruitful campaign subject.

In Massachusetts’s Bristol County, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson offered to make inmates in his jail help build a border wall last year, part of a broader prison work proposal he campaigned on before winning a fourth six-year term. He met Vice President Mike Pence last September and announced an effort to crowdfund a border wall.

In Butler County in Ohio, Sheriff Richard Jones, described as a “mini Trump,” received national attention back in 2006 for posting billboards around the conservative county warning businesses against hiring unauthorized immigrants. “Illegal Aliens Here,” read one outside his office, with an arrow pointing to the jailhouse. He has been re-elected three times since then and is reportedly thinking of running for US Senate.

This attention is not entirely supportive of sheriffs with tough immigration policies.

In California’s Los Angeles County, Jim McDonnell became the first incumbent sheriff to lose a re-election bid in more than a century, in large part because the immigrant community was unhappy with how his department was working with federal immigration agencies. Sheriff candidates in Mecklenburg and Wake Counties in North Carolina, home to Charlotte and Raleigh respectively, won elections in November in large part due to pledges to withdraw from the federal 287(g) program, which allows county sheriffs to assist federal agencies in deporting immigrants.

Garry McFadden, the new Mecklenburg County sheriff, said he’d had difficulties investigating crimes in immigrant communities as a homicide detective during a three-decade career with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

“Suspects know they can continue to prey upon those people because they are afraid to report them,” he adds. “My focus is educating people, being inclusive with my community, building trust with my community.”

“I’m going to combat crime, but I don’t think 287(g) is a tool I need to do that,” he continues. “Immigration [enforcement] is not my job.... The border is not my issue.”

‘We’re all impacted’

While police chiefs rarely last more than a few years, county sheriffs can keep their positions for decades. Elected to four-year terms in 45 states, incumbents often benefit from one-party domination and a lack of voter interest in local races.

The same has been true of local district attorneys, but as public concern over criminal justice reform has increased, voters and advocacy groups have begun to focus more on those elections.

That kind of attention could soon turn to sheriffs. Advocacy groups opposing 287(g) played a significant role in the North Carolina sheriff elections last year.

“There’s the potential for communities to elect sheriffs more aligned with their values,” says Jessica Pishko, a visiting fellow at the Rule of Law Collaborative at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who is studying sheriffs. “It’s possible people will want to elect sheriffs that make the kind of immigration moves that people want.”

And sheriffs are making immigration moves. Only 75 of more than 3,000 sheriff offices are participating in the 287(g) program, but participation in it has doubled since Trump took office, according to a Pew analysis, driven largely by rural and suburban counties.

“We’re all border counties now, because what happens in my county also happens in their county,” says Mark Dannels, sheriff of Cochise County on the Arizona-Mexico border. “We’re all impacted in terms of drugs, human smuggling.”

“I’d hope all [sheriffs] would stand together on that front,” he adds. “We shouldn’t be policing for politics, we should be policing for people.”

For now, sheriffs across the country are deciding how they want to involve themselves in immigration enforcement – if they want to at all.

“They’re making difficult decisions about how to cooperate with [federal agencies] and run their jails, what to tell their deputies,” says Holman.

“Sheriffs’ actions on immigration are playing a part on immigration at the national level,” she adds, “but it’s more about sheriffs trying to navigate this difficult policy arena.”

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