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“We’re Fair. We’re Balanced. We Treat People Decently.”: UNLV Immigration Clinic Director Michael Kagan Talks Immigration Reform in Carson City, and on the 2020 Campaign Trail

In the past four months, we’ve heard plenty of talk on immigration reform. But when it comes to action, it’s been more of a mixed bag. At the federal level, President Donald Trump continues his war on immigrant communities as his Democratic opponents decide how exactly to respond. And at the state level, it remains to be seen how exactly legislators respond and whether they will push back to protect local immigrant communities.

Fortunately UNLV Immigration Law Clinic Director Michael Kagan is here to explain what’s still on the table in Carson City, and point out what the 2020 presidential contenders must bring to the table to address Nevada voters’ concerns.

“The biggest problem here in Nevada has not been ICE. It’s been our own police.”
– Michael Kagan
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we discussed here last month, the strange demise of AB 281 has Nevadans wondering whether we’ll see much of any change on immigrant civil rights emanating from the Nevada Legislature in the waning days of the 80th Session. When I spoke with Professor Michael Kagan about this news late last week, he stated that all hope may not be lost just yet. We’ll talk more about the other bill that’s still in play, but first we need to step back and recognize the problem that led to AB 281 being drafted.

According to Kagan, “The biggest problem here in Nevada has not been ICE. It’s been our own police.” While the Trump administration has been pushing to make ICE and Border Patrol more aggressive in targeting immigrant communities, several Nevada law enforcement agencies haven’t hesitated to comply with ICE’s demands. Not only does Las Vegas Metro Police participate in the 287(g) program that deputizes local law enforcement officers to perform federal immigration enforcement actions, but Metro and other municipal authorities regularly approve ICE’s hold requests with few or no questions asked.

Kagan went on to explain, “The City of Las Vegas has a policy to report to ICE anyone who’s been booked in jail who was not born in the U.S. That’s a breathtaking policy. It wasn’t known. They were operating in the dark. That is not what a welcoming city would do.” In addition to the City of Las Vegas, Henderson has the same arrangement at its jail and North Las Vegas has the same arrangement thanks to its use of Las Vegas’ jail. Metro officials have claimed they are making changes to their working relationship with ICE, but they have yet to provide records to confirm this claim.

“It’s about restoring trust with police. […] Police should just be saying what they’re doing. The community should not be afraid of them.”
– Michael Kagan
Photo by Andrew Davey

Why are local police playing a larger role in the national conversation on immigration reform? As Kagan noted, “80% of defendants are handed over to ICE by local police.” This is why Kagan and other local immigrant rights activists want change to start at home: “It starts with our own local police. It starts with our own state officials.”

At first glance, it appears that most of Nevada’s elected leaders understand that immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than native-born U.S. citizens, and that police crackdowns on immigrant communities tend to be counterproductive in discouraging immigrants from reporting (real) crimes to the police. Just today Governor Steve Sisolak (D), Attorney General Aaron Ford (D), and a few more Nevada elected officials signed onto a nationwide letter from state and local elected leaders urging Congress to pass permanent protection for DREAMers and TPS and DED refugees.

And yet, when legislators had the opportunity to pass an actual law that sets clear guidelines for local police in handling ICE hold requests, they instead passed on even holding an Assembly floor vote on AB 281. Harkening back to the similar death of 2017’s SB 223, a bill similar to the Illinois Trust Act that was signed into law by that state’s (then) Republican Governor that same year, Kagan lamented the death of the even narrower AB 281: “What we’ve seen as a pattern is that Democrats will fold. We saw that two years ago, and we saw it with AB 281.”

However, another immigrant rights bill is still alive: AB 376, which orders the reporting to the Legislature of local police transfers of immigrants into ICE custody. As Kagan sees it, “It’s a Nevada approach. It’s a pragmatic approach. It’s about restoring trust with police.” He continued, “Police should just be saying what they’re doing. The community should not be afraid of them.”

“Candidates must know that if they’re visiting Nevada, they must deal with immigration. And if they’re talking immigration, they need to talk about the nuts and bolts of immigration, not just the headlines.”
– Michael Kagan
Photo by Andrew Davey

Yet because of all the rhetoric surrounding immigration, crime, and “sanctuary cities”, the conversation on immigrant communities and public safety often gets distorted by empty language and cheap political stunts. This is when Kagan expressed his frustration over the “sanctuary” label, which has no specific legal definition. According to Kagan, “It’s a misleading term. It doesn’t mean anything. It confuses everyone.”

If anything, this terminology may have more meaning in terms of Donald Trump trying to win reelection by running up his margins in whiter and more rural states than improving local police relationships with the communities they’re sworn to protect and serve. And to an extent, this terminology has become more of a talking point on the left in terms of whether they want to “abolish ICE” and “support sanctuary cities”, but thus far former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) are the only Democratic presidential candidates to release their own respective full, comprehensive immigration reform plans.

Photo by Andrew Davey

When she was in Southern Nevada last month, Gillibrand visited the UNLV Immigration Clinic and met with Kagan and the rest of the team. As Kagan recalled, “I was impressed and surprised how she wanted to get in the weeds and discuss the details of immigration policy.”

And as candidates continue to pour into the Silver State ahead of the February 22, 2020, Democratic Caucus, Kagan hopes more of them will offer more details on what they actually mean when they say “immigration reform”. For Kagan, “Candidates must know that if they’re visiting Nevada, they must deal with immigration. And if they’re talking immigration, they need to talk about the nuts and bolts of immigration, not just the headlines.”

“I would recommend that candidates talk not just about the border, but also about what’s happening in Spring Valley and in East Las Vegas and in communities across the nation.”
– Michael Kagan
Photo by Andrew Davey

When I had the chance to ask them about it last month, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) and Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) all declared they do not want to continue having local police perform federal immigration enforcement actions. After her town hall at Bonanza High School, Warren also stated that she wants even more significant reform to the federal immigration enforcement system. On ICE, she said, “It needs to be reorganized. […] It can’t operate in the same way where it treats children in the same way it treats terrorists and criminals.”

Since then Warren has signaled support for Castro’s immigration plan, which calls for the decriminalization of undocumented border crossings and legal status (including a path to citizenship) for all immigrants who have no history of violent crime. While Kagan and local activists are encouraged by the candidates who are moving in this direction, he still wants to see them talk about more than just the splashy stories that attract the most national media attention. As Kagan put it, “I would recommend that candidates talk not just about the border, but also about what’s happening in Spring Valley and in East Las Vegas and in communities across the nation.”

Photo by Andrew Davey

Or in other words, if these Democratic candidates want to connect with more Nevada voters, they will need to make the connection between Trump’s rhetoric in Washington and what’s actually happening on the ground in Las Vegas. And as Kagan noted, “Looking at immigrants as people is essential. We also need to look at them as our neighbors, and look at children as children.”

Ultimately Kagan hopes that one day, America will adopt immigration reform that’s based on this tenet: “We’re fair. We’re balanced. We treat people decently.” This may not be happening in America now, but there are some 21 candidates who may soon have the opportunity to make this happen nationwide. And in the meantime, there are some 63 lawmakers in Carson City who have the opportunity to make this happen in this state right now.

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