Daniel Nichanian

The Wisconsin counties that are cooperating closely with ICE have drawn protests from immigrants’ rights activists, but the issue is not resonating in the sheriff elections they are holding this year.

In fact, Sheriff Eric Severson is running unopposed in Waukesha County (a populous and conservative county in the Milwaukee suburbs). In 2017,

Severson applied to join ICE’s 287(g) program. The program deputizes local law enforcement officials to act as federal immigration agents and issue “detainers” on people whom they suspect to be undocumented. ICE soon approved Severson’s application, making Waukesha the only county in Wisconsin that is part of 287(g). Severson says his office will use the program only to interrogate individuals already in its custody.

Voces de la Frontera has organized repeated protests and even a training session against Waukesha’s participation in 287(g). “Sheriff Severson is working hand-in-hand with the Trump Administration to implement mass scale policies that are traumatizing children and separating families,” said executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz.

Inaddition, Wisconsin is home to two jails where ICE detains people: the Kenosha County Detention Center and the Dodge County Detention Facility.

These jails have drawn protests, most recently a July gathering against Kenosha County’s cooperation with ICE. Immigrants detained there are often denied adequate legal representation and isolated from attorneys, ProPublica exposed in a 2017 investigation.

But this system is lucrative for the two counties, which make millions of dollars a year by charging the federal government for the days that someone is detained. WisContext recently published a report on the economic incentives that such arrangements create for local law enforcement. “We are absolutely running a business, and I’m proud to say we’re running a business,” former Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls said during his tenure.

Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth and Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt are both seeking re-election this year, but immigration has not played a prominent role in either of their races.

In Dodge County, Schmidt only faces a challenger in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, Patrol Lt. Jim Ketchem. The winner will then be unopposed in November. (Dodge County, in the suburbs of Milwaukee, is staunchly Republican.) Schmidt supports maintaining his county’s relationship with ICE and wants to expand the space available to house detainees. Ketchem has criticized Schmidt over this, but primarily on the grounds of financial mismanagement: He argues that in the face of the privatization of immigration detentions, it is imprudent to assume that Dodge County will keep receiving as much revenue from ICE, and that expansion plans should therefore be reassessed.

In Kenosha County, Beth has been supportive of his county’s relationship with ICE. Even when he voiced concern that the Trump administration could speed up deportations, he did so on the grounds that shorter detentions would hurt Kenosha County’s financial bottom-line. “It’s difficult to run a business when you don’t know what next year’s business is going to be,” he said.

Beth, a Republican, faces Sgt. David Zoerner in the general election. Zoerner beat county board member Andy Berg in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary. And both Democrats had suggested that they would leave Kenosha’s immigration policies largely unchanged, whether in answering a questionnaire prepared by the local group Forward Kenosha or elsewhere.

Berg’s echoed Sheriff Beth’s stated worry for the county’s finances: “If we were to rid the KSD of ICE inmates, we would lose approx $1.5 million profit,” he wrote. He did strike a more ambivalent tone elsewhere in the questionnaire, balancing the fear of income loss with the possibility that decreasing ICE detentions might mean a “less stressed workforce.” Zoerner does not directly address ICE detentions in his questionnaire, but he does present overall cooperation as one of the duties of his office. “I have no intention of conducting ICE raids or making arrests for ICE,” he wrote, then adds “I cannot ignore my duty or responsibility to the citizens of Kenosha County, however.” In addition, both Democrats indicated support for honoring ICE detainer requests, though not for joining ICE’s 287(g) program. Neither responded to my requests for comments regarding how they envision their county’s relationship with ICE.