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How Tuesday’s Sheriff Elections Dealt a Blow to ICE

Local allies of the Trump administration fought challengers over immigration policy.

President Trump met with sheriffs in September.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

How Tuesday’s Sheriff Elections Dealt a Blow to ICE

Local allies of the Trump administration fought challengers over immigration policy.


Voters around the country put ICE on notice on Tuesday, restricting the federal agency’s law enforcement reach in several states and counties.

“People showed up yesterday because they want their local communities to revolve [around] their values, even if what happens in Washington does not for the foreseeable future,” Elizabeth Alex, the senior director of community organizing at CASA, an immigration advocacy organization, told The Appeal about elections she was tracking in Maryland.

ICE relies on the cooperation and assistance of local law enforcement officials, many of which enter into formal partnerships with the agency. One of the strongest relationships that a jurisdiction can have with ICE is a 287(g) deal, which deputizes local officers to directly investigate the status of the people they detain. As of today, ICE reports that 78 law enforcement agencies are part of 287(g) agreements. That’s a small number  relative to the nation’s thousands of counties—and it is likely to drop once officials elected on Tuesday take office.

In at least three populous counties, voters elected candidates who pledged to withdraw from the 287(g) program.

In at least three populous counties, voters elected candidates who pledged to withdraw from the 287(g) program.

Two of those elections were in North Carolina, where Garry McFadden and Gerald Baker were elected sheriff of Mecklenburg County, (Charlotte) and Wake County, (Raleigh), respectively. In Anne Arundel Co., Maryland (Annapolis), where Republican County Executive Steve Schuh chose to join the program in 2016, Schuh lost to Steuart Pittman, who campaigned on ending both 287(g) and a separate agreement that allows ICE to detain people at the county jail.

Baker’s victory over longtime Republican Sheriff Donnie Harrison may have been the night’s biggest upset. A fixture of the local political establishment since 2002, Harrison had consistently defended practices that immigrant advocates worry will lead to increased deportations. “I know that we are all humans who deserve wonderful lives and I want to support that,” Baker told La Conexión USA in explaining his opposition to Harrison’s participation in 287(g).

I’m a little in shock.Felicia Arriaga, professor of sociology at Appalachian State University and a volunteer at El Pueblo

I’m a little in shock,” Felicia Arriaga, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University and a volunteer at El Pueblo, an advocacy group for North Carolina’s Latinx community, told The Appeal on Wednesday, adding that the campaign was hardly visible as of early October. But events organized by community organizers and a voter education campaign organized by the ACLU increased the recognition of the election’s stakes for immigration policy. An ACLU official told The Appeal that the organization spent $140,000 in the county.

“Putting people’s stories in the media in English and in Spanish was very helpful for people to feel that they had a say in the process,” Arriaga said.

Fairness Maryland, an advocacy group that the ACLU advises, oversaw mailers and newspaper ads to make the issue of immigration more visible to voters in Frederick County, the home of Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, an ally of the Trump administration. While Jenkins won re-election by 6 percentage points on Tuesdaya margin that was far smaller than the 26 percentage points by which he defeated the same opponent four years ago—immigration policy proved to be a winning issue elsewhere.

Candidates successfully challenged incumbents on their immigration stances even in counties that cooperate with ICE through more discreet mechanisms than 287(g) agreements.

Rich Stanek, the longtime Republican sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota, (Minneapolis), appears to have lost his re-election bid to challenger David Hutchinson. As of this writing, Hutchinson led Stanek by 0.44 percent of the vote with all precincts reporting, a margin that was outside what that would trigger a publicly-funded re-count, though Stanek had not conceded.

Sheriff Rich Stanek of Minneapolis drew protest for his treatment of immigrants. He appears to have lost his reelection bid.

Stanek, who was expected to become the next president of the National Sheriff’s Association, was not party to a 287(g) agreement, but had drawn local protests for sharing the birthplaces and release dates of the people whom he detained with ICE, and for giving ICE access to people he detained without ensuring that those detained know their legal rights. Hutchinson campaigned on shifting the Sheriff Department’s immigration policies. “You will notice the difference between…a sheriff who stands with ICE and a sheriff who stands with immigrants,” he said at a party convention in May.

Paul Van Blarcum, the sheriff of Ulster County, New York who is known for aggressive law enforcement practices, lost to Democrat Juan Figueroa. The challenger distributed a flyer during the campaign that assailed Van Blarcum’s “hard-line policy of reporting immigrants under custody to ICE.” “Immigrants should feel safe to seek the protection of the law,” the flyer stated.

In Orange County, California, however, voters elected a new sheriff—Don Barnes—who opposes the state’s sanctuary law and  helped put in place a new policy to circumvent its restrictions on cooperation between local authorities and ICE. In neighboring Los Angeles County, the sheriff’s election remained close as of Wednesday morning. Alex Villanueva, who was endorsed by the immigrants’ advocacy group CHIRLA Action Fund for his promise to restrict the access to county jails that ICE has enjoyed under Sheriff Jim McDonnell, clung to a narrow lead.

Oregon voters upheld their state’s sanctuary law, which restricts cooperation over immigration between local authorities and ICE, decisively rejecting an initiative to repeal it. The initiative was supported by a group of sheriffs from rural counties. They endorsed it by tying illegal immigration to criminality even though studies contradict such a connection.

I would like us to go beyond to say not only do we not assist ICE, but we're putting up a bit of a firewall.Elizabeth Alex, senior director of community organizing at CASA, an immigration advocacy organization

Immigrants rights groups warn that their victories will mean nothing absent continued advocacy around the issue. “The work starts after he’s elected,” Arriaga said of Baker’s victory in Wake County. She added that communities should “pressure and make sure that he’s actually fulfilling his promises.”

“A Democrat in a moderate county stood up and said we don’t stand with an administration that separates families, and I think that’s super-significant” Alex said of Pittman’s win in Anne Arundel County. “I would like us to go beyond to say not only do we not assist ICE, but we’re putting up a bit of a firewall to ensure that our local resources are not being used.”