The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has undergone rapid changes since it got a new sheriff, including a policy to halt the sharing of information with federal immigration agents that would help them determine whether inmates were eligible for deportation.
Sheriff Earnell Lucas said his decision to not provide information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents unless a judge issued a warrant was meant to help regain trust in the immigrant community and avoid costly litigation.
“It’s not politics. It’s the right thing to do,” Lucas said in a news conference last week. “We don’t want to place a chilling effect on any one community of not wanting to communicate with law enforcement.”
After the announcement, ICE representatives said they would “continue to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at work sites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests.”
Such tactics by federal authorities have become commonplace during the Trump administration when local law enforcement agencies have decided to stop collaborating with immigration agents.
In February, ICE announced that some 200 people across North Carolina had been arrested after several counties stopped participating in the federal 287(g) program.
The controversial policy was signed into law in 1996 in order to bridge a path for state or local law enforcement agencies that wanted to collaborate with federal immigration enforcement efforts. The program is voluntary, and participation, which is subject to federal approval, can later be canceled. The number of agencies signed on to the program has significantly increased under the Trump administration.
ICE’s Atlanta field office director Sean Gallagher said in a news conference that this is the “new normal” and that residents in North Carolina could expect to see more ICE agents in their communities.
“ICE will now have no choice but to conduct more at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at work sites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests instead of arrests at the jail where enforcement is safer for everyone involved,” Gallagher said.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group based in Milwaukee, said the best response to an increase in non-targeted raids is political mobilization.
People “need to engage local law enforcement and local government officials to pass policies that refuse to be used as an arm of immigration [enforcement],” she said.
The policy change implemented by Lucas and his deputies marks a stark contrast to the Milwaukee County sheriff’s office when it was run by Sheriff David Clarke.
Clarke, an outspoken supporter of President Trump and a conservative media favorite, fully cooperated with ICE and sought plans to pursue an agreement that would allow some jail employees to act as de facto immigration agents in order to assess whether inmates convicted of crimes were in the country illegally.
Lawsuits challenging lengthy detentions by local authorities based on a written request by ICE have been filed in more than half a dozen states, according to the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group.
Many counties, including Los Angeles and most recently two in North Carolina, have pulled out of the program after federal court rulings found that counties would be liable for damages for holding inmates beyond their release date.
In recent years the immigrant community in Milwaukee has been mobilizing to block the 287(g) program and to institute a policy of noncollaboration with ICE unless a judge has issued a warrant, said Neumann-Ortiz.
Nearly 10% of Milwaukee’s 595,070 residents are foreign-born, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 17% of residents are Latino, and 3.5% are Asian.
In November 2017, the Department of Homeland Security rejected an application that would have approved the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department to participate in the 287(g) program after an outcry from the community.
“It’s good to have a sheriff that’s looking at people as human beings,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Moore Omokunde. “Lucas’ approach to the department is refreshing.”
Neumann-Ortiz said the election of Lucas came about through grass-roots activism and alliances with other elected leaders.
“Lucas was someone running for office who had a social justice orientation to law enforcement,” she said.
Clarke, the former sheriff, was an eccentric character who frequently wore a cowboy hat and made vitriolic statements on conservative talk shows about critics of police abuse.
He came under scrutiny when seven workers at the county jail he oversaw were criminally investigated in the death of an inmate who was found dehydrated. Three former sheriff’s staffers were charged in February 2018 with felonies for depriving the inmate of water for a week.
Clarke resigned in August 2017.
Lucas, 60, said he aims to change the state of public discourse in Milwaukee County.
“In Milwaukee County we’ve got to ensure that we are not just doing the right things but that we are doing them right,” he said at the news conference.
Since taking over as sheriff, Lucas has also created an Office of Legal Affairs and Compliance to ensure oversight of the department and has met with immigrant and activist leaders in the community.