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Commentary: Rensselaer County sheriff, stop doing ICE’s dirty work


Melanie Trimble

For the past two years, Rensselaer County has held a sad distinction. It is the only county in New York where the sheriff has handed over control of some of his officers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Known as the 287(g) program, in which ICE deputizes local officers to act as de facto federal immigration agents, this scheme diverts local resources, makes local law enforcement complicit in ICE’s cruelty, and erodes police and community trust. This is why Rensselaer County stands alone.

Sheriff Pat Russo has the chance to avoid doubling down on a bad deal. Though he could terminate the agreement at any time, his 287(g) agreement comes up for renewal at the end of June. He should let it expire.

Under the terms of 287(g), ICE has the authority to co-opt local law officers to investigate, detain and work to deport people for federal civil immigration violations. That means officers are pulled away from their usual duties responding to the needs of our community to become foot soldiers in ICE’s war on immigrants. A bad deal in the best of times, this is all the more worrying now, when the current public health and economic crisis is desperately demanding local agencies’ attention.

Russo’s deal with ICE also sends a clear message that his office is in league with ICE — an agency widely condemned for unconscionably separating families, seizing children in the dead of night, and using fear tactics to terrorize communities. When local law enforcement act like ICE, they own ICE’s reputation. Because of this, immigrant residents have reason to worry that any brush with the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Office, even a simple traffic stop, could lead to being torn away from family. It forces residents to hesitate to report crimes, to offer information or assistance to investigations, or even to ask for help during emergencies — all for fear that ICE may be notified.

Most law enforcement agencies recognize this undermines public safety. In fact, 71 percent of law enforcement respondents to a national survey said that barriers immigrants face to engaging with law enforcement make officers less able to hold people accountable for crimes. This is why only a few dozen of the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the United States participate in 287(g).

If concerns about local resources, public trust and enabling ICE weren’t enough to convince Russo to abandon his deal with ICE, he should consider its threat to public health. No one should have their life put at risk for a civil immigration violation, but jails and prisons are a coronavirus trap. This 287(g) agreement not only needlessly enables ICE arrests, but it also means swelling the number of people detained for months or even years in local jails and immigration facilities in New York, where physical distancing isn’t possible and sanitation products and masks are in short supply. This is why the virus has erupted in jails and prisons across the country. It’s not only detainees and staff who are at risk; it creates a transmission risk to communities outside facility walls, too.

At a time when corrections officials across the country are responding to the virus by reducing the numbers of people held, renewing Rensselaer’s 287(g) now would be a major step in the opposite direction. In the two years since Russo made his deal with ICE, it’s difficult to see what the county has gained, but the impact on local resources, public safety and immigrant families — which the NYCLU raised with the sheriff before his ink was dry — are multiplied by the current health crisis.

It’s time for Rensselaer to rejoin the rest of New York’s law enforcement agencies. Instead of doing ICE’s dirty work, the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Office can renew its commitment to the needs and well-being of the people of Rensselaer county.

This piece originally appeared in Albany Times Union.

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