hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues July 2018


Sheriff faces criticism as county, ICE join forces

Local jail to check immigration status of anyone arrested


Contributing writer


The Rensselaer County sheriff says he’s merely buying into a federal program that could intercept a few potential criminals.

But critics say the program is discriminatory and would wrongly enlist county officers in expanding a controversial federal immigration crackdown.

Earlier this year, Sheriff Patrick A. Russo signed up for a program that deputizes some county jail workers to review inmates’ immigration status.

The sheriff says it’s all about improving public safety.
“If we have a chance to take someone out of the community who shouldn’t be there, it makes the community safer,” Russo said.

Opponents say the county’s participation in the program is likely to have the opposite effect.
“It’s a heartless program,” said Brigid Ball Shaw, who lives in Averill Park and has spoken out against the program. “It drives a wedge between immigrants and the police, who need immigrants to be on their side.”

In late January, Russo signed an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to have two of his correction officers trained and deputized by ICE.

Russo’s department is the only law enforcement agency in New York so far to have signed up for what’s known as the 287(g) program, named for a provision of federal immigration law that was enacted in 1996 as part of the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

President Trump signed an executive order last year calling for ICE to expand the number of such partnerships with local law enforcement agencies. To date, 78 agencies in 20 states, almost all of them county sheriff’s departments, are participating. Twenty-five are in Texas.

In Massachusetts, the state Department of Correction and three counties south of Boston have signed on.

No police agencies in Vermont have joined the program. The state took the stand last summer that enforcing federal immigration policy is outside the scope of Vermont law enforcement, and that except in criminal investigations, Vermont officers should neither inquire about immigrant status nor share information with ICE.

At the state level, New York also has opposed the 287(g) program. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sided with activists who say the program damages police-community relations and creates a hostile climate for all immigrants.


Focus on jail inmates
In an open letter to county residents that was released in February, Russo explained that the program applies only to the county jail.

“We will not be training our highway patrol deputies to become ICE agents to conduct immigration sweeps, nor does our agreement allow us to do so,” Russo wrote.
But the sheriff says undocumented immigrants who wind up at the county jail should be brought to the attention of federal authorities.

“I will not release any illegal alien with a criminal record who has the potential to commit additional crimes back into the community,” Russo wrote. “This would be a disservice to law-abiding citizens and to members of the law enforcement community who may have to interact with these individuals at a later time and would be a violation of my oath of office.”

Under the terms of the program, the county is sending two correction officers to a federal training center in Charleston, S.C., for four weeks of training. The county pays the officers’ salaries and benefits during training. ICE covers their travel, housing and per-diem expenses.

ICE also pays for computer hardware and software and its installation at the jail so the officers can access the ICE database. The deputies are under ICE supervision for that part of their duties and must complete a one-week refresher course every two years.

As of late June, one Rensselaer County officer had completed training, the second was due to finish in July, and the equipment had been installed, Russo said. He expected the program to start after the second officer returns this month.

“It only involves people who have been arrested and sent to our facility,” Russo stressed. “It allows vetting in real time.”

The program “isn’t costing the county anything,” Russo said.
Other employees covered for the two officers while they were away for training, “the same as if they were on vacation,” he said. The workload at the jail tends to be sporadic, so the officers can review the status of questionable inmates at slower times.

“It’s a shame it’s become a political issue,” Russo said. “To me, it’s a public safety issue.”
The program could provide a financial benefit to the county. The jail receives $97 per day for each inmate it holds for federal agencies. The department has such agreements with the U.S. Marshals Service and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. However, the number of people likely to be detained for ICE is very small.

Based on U.S. Census figures for 2016 and Russo’s application to the program, only about 5 percent of the county’s residents are foreign-born, though that number may be an underestimate given that census counts often miss undocumented people.

Most of the county’s foreign-born population lives in Troy. Only two to six immigrants are booked at the jail per month, or 24 to 72 per year, out of a total annual jail population of about 3,000. That’s only 2.4 percent at the high end, suggesting non-citizens wind up at the county jail at less than half the rate of citizens.


Protection vs. unfair targeting
The New York Civil Liberties Union opposes Rensselaer County’s participation in the 287(g) program.

“The community is concerned about wasting resources on an unhelpful, unnecessary program,” said Melanie Trimble, the group’s Capital Region director. “The federal authorities have a strong presence in the Capital District. Our local law enforcement agencies are strapped. The feds don’t need any help.”

ICE has carried out raids in the area without any local law enforcement assistance, she said.
Russo likes to cite a 2016 double murder in Troy to explain why he believes the program will be a benefit. Both victims and four suspects were Mexicans without documents.

“I don’t want to release a criminal wanted for murder in Guatemala back into the community,” Russo said.

But critics point out that Troy’s immigrants come from all over the world, not just from Central and South America. That includes students and faculty at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, many of whom stay in the area to start tech companies.

Ball Shaw gave the example of a hypothetical young woman from Pakistan “who graduates from RPI and has a genius idea.”

“She may take her genius idea to Albany,” where the sheriff chose not to join the 287(g) program, “because she doesn’t want to deal with the Rensselaer County police,” Ball Shaw said.

She added that the program “plays to a racist element, and that’s very disappointing.”
Russo insisted that only the two deputized officers will work with ICE.
“There’s a lot of falsehoods out there,” he said.

Opponents worry about how much information could be exchanged between those officers and other law enforcement personnel.

“What is the information flow between police and the officers in the jail?” asked Sarah Rogerson, director of the immigration law clinic at Albany Law School. “If a person is picked up for driving without a license, what keeps the police from calling the ICE deputies? It’s challenging for the sheriff to represent that this will be confined to the jail.”


Immigrants see rising fear
ICE has become notorious for its heavy-handed enforcement of immigration regulations, sometimes detaining people for minor civil violations. Immigrants whose understanding of English and U.S. law are limited, and who may come from countries where law enforcement is at best ineffective and at worst corrupt, may not find the sheriff’s statements trustworthy.

“In my own experience, I see an unprecedented fear even among documented immigrants,” said Jinah Kim, owner of Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen in Troy. Kim, a South Korean who holds a green card, said friends have urged her to become a U.S. citizen as soon as possible.

“Even people who have green cards fear they’re in jeopardy,” she said. “They’re afraid it will escalate.”

Kim hires documented immigrants, mostly refugees and asylum-seekers, to work at her restaurant.

“We heard about the fear that they would be targeting immigrant-owned and operated businesses that have been considered safe places for immigrants,” she said. “Some of it is misinformation, but they have to recognize that the messaging and overall feel of the program stigmatizes immigrants.”

Research has shown that the 287(g) program hurts public safety, Kim said.
When they know that involving police could also mean involving immigration authorities, immigrants “don’t want to report crimes,” Kim said. “They go deeper into the shadows. It’s actually a big burden on municipal officers.”

Rogerson said the program “sends the message that police are not your friend.”
“It could lead to a spike in crime, because criminals know that the victims won’t go to the police,” she explained.

What would happen to people who are reported to ICE through the program?
“It’s all up to ICE,” Russo said.


Legislative debate
As an independently elected public official, Russo didn’t need permission from the county legislature to join the 287(g) program. Outside of Troy, in the more conservative, rural parts of the county, Russo’s initiative is by no means unpopular, and in March, the county legislature passed a resolution along party lines supporting his participation.

Cynthia Doran, a Democrat who represents a Troy district and is the legislature’s deputy minority leader, said all the members of the minority caucus, including two Conservatives and an independent, opposed the resolution. The minority caucus introduced two countering resolutions, asking Russo to withdraw his application and then to refuse to participate. The resolutions were not voted out of committee, Doran said.

“We don’t see a need for this program,” Doran said.

She pointed out that the counties along New York’s border with Canada and counties with much larger populations have not joined it. And she quoted Ed Manney, a Democratic legislator who died recently, as saying of Russo, “What does he know that no one else in the state does?”
“We all believe the sheriff has many other responsibilities that he should be taking care for the county, for example the opioid epidemic,” Doran added.

Republicans normally complain about unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments, she said.

“But we see this as a type of unfunded mandate,” Doran said. “We’d like to see the costs related to the 287(g) program only, not shuffled in with the rest of his budget.”

Doran said she’s also concerned about the effect of the program on the immigrant community.
“Undocumented immigrants are fearful of anyone associated with law enforcement,” she said. “They may be targeted if they’re stopped for a traffic violation. I don’t see a need for us to get involved in the business of the federal government, nor do the residents who elected me.”
The Sheriff’s Department’s agreement with ICE expires on June 30, 2019, after which it can be extended. Deputized officers are expected to continue in their jobs for at least two years after training.

NYCLU’s legal staff is researching whether the county’s participation in the program is consistent with New York state law, Trimble said.

“Most people want Rensselaer County to be welcoming rather than fear-mongering,” she said.
Russo has raised concerns that the local immigrant community could be infiltrated by criminals, including Mexico’s dreaded MS-13 gang. The New York State Police say there is no MS-13 activity in Rensselaer County, but Russo has argued he’s trying to keep it that way.

But Rogerson said the 287(g) program is based on the incorrect assumption that undocumented immigrants pose a greater public safety threat than citizens.

“Casting it as a public safety issue assumes someone with a prior deportation order is a threat,” she said. “Most aren’t. What is it about being an immigrant that makes people dangerous?”
And Ball Shaw suggested the sheriff might be overreaching by raising the specter of criminal gangs.

“We don’t have the gangs and murderers,” she said. “We have a vibrant immigrant community. We need them.”