For the last ten years, Las Vegas Metro Police and other local law enforcement agencies have quietly been cooperating with ICE to help them deport immigrants regardless of the nature of the charges against them. How does this arrangement work, and who really benefits from it? Today we heard from Metro Police, local immigrant rights activists, and a newly elected Clark County Commissioner on how a “tough on crime” law passed by Congress in 1996 is affecting law enforcement’s relationship with Southern Nevada’s immigrant community in 2019.
“I had paid for my mistake. But right outside the jail, [ICE agents] were waiting for me. They took me into custody for 20 days.”
– Jorge Franco, Las Vegas
Last September we examined the massive disparity in our criminal justice system, and more specifically how immigrants being charged with even the most minor of infractions faced deportation while others facing similar charges merely got slaps on the wrist. Even more specifically, we noticed the stark contrast between Las Vegas resident Alicia Moya being sent to the ICE contracted Nevada Southern Detention Center in Pahrump over her traffic infractions while then Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) continued his “law and order” campaign for Governor after the revelation of the eight traffic tickets he collected during a ten year period commuting in the D.C. Beltway region.
Why were Moya’s and Laxalt’s respective cases treated so differently? For one, Virginia and Maryland merely treat traffic tickets as civil infractions, while Nevada considers traffic violations to be misdemeanor criminal offenses. Another key difference is Nevada law enforcement agencies’ relationship with ICE wherein they turn over immigrant defendants at federal agents’ request regardless of how major or minor the accused crime is.
Today I spoke with Jorge Franco, another Las Vegas resident whose minor infraction landed him in major trouble. As Franco recalled, “It began with a broken brake light. […] Metro Police cuffed me, said I was under arrest, and sent me to jail.”
According to Franco, once his case landed in court, “I had been [released] on bail, then I was sent back to my family.” However, it wasn’t as simple as it seemed when the judge released him. “I had paid for my mistake. But right outside the jail, [ICE agents] were waiting for me. They took me into custody for 20 days.”
“The end of 287(g) must happen now. It’s not keeping us safe. It’s criminalizing our community.”
– Lalo Montoya, Make the Road Nevada
Franco has since been released, and he’s now being assisted by Arriba Las Vegas Worker’s Center on his immigration case. However according to Franco and other activists, his case is far from isolated. When I spoke with Make the Road Nevada Political Director Lalo Montoya, he recalled a similar story of a minor infraction leading to dangerously major legal trouble.
As Montoya described this case, “A friend of mine, her husband was in a deportation proceeding for jaywalking. This is somebody who has two kids, a wife, and his life here.” Again, Montoya spoke of a case where an immigrant with undocumented status was arrested, incarcerated, and transferred to ICE custody over a mere jaywalking infraction.
Montoya finds cases like this, Jorge Franco’s detention, and Alicia Moya’s detention unacceptable. He then declared, “The end of 287(g) must happen now. It’s not keeping us safe. It’s criminalizing our community.”
“At that point, the ICE agents who are present will make the determination of what happens. At that point, it’s not Metro’s decision any more.”
– Jay Rivera, Las Vegas Metro Police
After the program, Las Vegas Metro Police officials agreed to speak with reporters and offer their take on their participation in the 287(g) program. It’s named for Section 287(g) of the 1996 law passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by then Democratic President Bill Clinton that encourages state and local law enforcement agencies to assist in enforcing federal immigration law. Under 287(g) such state and local law enforcement officers perform tasks that are otherwise reserved for federal agents, such as inquiring about a defendant’s immigration status and detaining the defendant beyond the time one would otherwise be held in local custody. In recent years multiple 287(g) municipalities have come under fire for engaging in racial profiling, using local tax dollars to enforce federal immigration law, lacking transparency and accountability to the local community, and mostly turning over immigrants who didn’t commit a violent crime (if even convicted of any crime).
During our conversation, Las Vegas Metro Police Public Information Officer Jay Rivera flatly denied they engage in any of the misconduct that ensnared (now former) Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2017 and convinced newly elected Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Sheriff Garry McFadden to end his agency’s 287(g) agreement late last year. But when asked whether Metro officers use any discretion in turning over defendants to ICE, Rivera explained, “There’s no discretion. There’s a process in place where an individual who commits a crime is transferred to Clark County Detention Center.”
Rivera continued, “Anyone who was born outside the United States will automatically go through the additional step of checking fingerprints through the database. At that point, the ICE agents who are present will make the determination of what happens. At that point, it’s not Metro’s decision any more.”
Rivera then added, “It’s a procedure we have. It’s not based on race. It’s not based on nationality. It’s just a process we have where anyone born outside the United States will go through 287(g).” Or in other words, as long as the defendant being detained in Clark County Detention Center is found to be an immigrant with undocumented status, that defendant can be turned over to ICE regardless of the nature of the accused crime.
“We do not want these communities to be fearful of the police. […] If the police come to the neighborhood over a domestic violence call or something else, we don’t want them to be afraid to talk to the police.”
– Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom (D)
Later in our conversation with Rivera, he stressed that Metro only applies 287(g) to those arrested and detained in Clark County Detention Center, and that they do not arrest otherwise law abiding residents in the larger community over their immigration status. But for immigrant rights activists, that guarantee is not good enough. With Metro’s 2009 287(g) agreement up for renewal this year, they’re hoping Clark County will instead scrap it and treat all defendants the same regardless of immigration status.
During Arriba Las Vegas’ press conference, Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom didn’t hold back in denouncing 287(g): “It’s destroying families. We have kids who end up in [foster care] because their parents are being removed. There are a lot of costs in terms of jail time.” He then acknowledged, “We might lose some federal money, but we’ll gain money through other services [that will no longer be necessary should Metro end its 287(g) agreement].”
When asked what he intends to do about it, Segerblom vowed to use his position on the County Commission to urge Metro Police to end its participation in 287(g). As Segerblom put it, “We do not want these communities to be fearful of the police. […] If the police come to the neighborhood over a domestic violence call or something else, we don’t want them to be afraid to talk to the police.”
When I spoke with UNLV Immigration Law Clinic Director Michael Kagan in August 2017, he noted, “People are increasingly afraid to call 911. That’s great for rapists. That’s great for abusive husbands. That’s not great for immigrant victims of crime.” And on that note, we must wonder whether this 287(g) program that’s sold as a way to protect the community might actually be endangering the community.