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Erosion of trust

Confusion and conflict swirl around Tulsa County’s contract with ICE

Emotions run high during a packed Tulsa County Commissioners’ meeting regarding the future of the county’s 287(g) contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Joseph Rushmore

The Tulsa County Commissioners’ weekly meeting at the courthouse was busier than usual on the morning of June 10. Residents packed courtroom 119—some in a show of support, others in opposition to the county’s participation in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program known as 287(g).

The contract, an agreement between local law enforcement and ICE, has been in effect in Tulsa since 2007. While enforcing federal immigration laws typically falls under the responsibility of ICE officials, 287(g) deputizes local law-enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws by training local correctional officers to screen jailed immigrants, determine their immigration status, and place them on an ICE hold until they are picked up for deportation.

Currently, only 90 counties in the United States have 287(g) contracts. Many counties have terminated the 287(g) program due to the high cost of tax payer dollars as well as the erosion of trust between the police and immigrant communities. To that last point, Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty explained to the City Council in 2017 why his department would not proactively enforce federal immigration law: “If we’re put in that position, that means a good portion of the public is not going to call us if a crime is committed. And we are here to serve. The police department serves all individuals, whether they’re here documented or not.”

While Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado signed to extend the 287(g) program in Tulsa on May 10, county commissioners hold the power to overturn the agreement with a majority vote.

Advocates and activists from organizations including Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS), ACTION Tulsa, New Sanctuary Network Tulsa and Dream Alliance Oklahoma have been advocating for the program’s end. They have been attending weekly County Commissioners’ meetings to make their case through a series of two-minute statements. Recently, an activist group against “illegal immigration,” the Tulsa 912 Project, caught wind of the efforts being made to cease the 287(g) program. They made a public plea for “boots on the ground” to show up in support of 287(g).

Supporters of 287(g) were easy to spot in the courtroom on June 10 as they were encouraged to wear red, white and blue in a show of patriotism. (They were instructed to refrain from wearing anything indicating support for President Trump in order not to distract from their message.) The courtroom was overcrowded, and emotions ran high as attendees stood and applauded in solidarity as people from both sides took turns to speak.

Those in support of the contract pleaded with the commissioners, asking them to protect U.S. citizens from “illegal criminal aliens,” whom they said were overrunning the country. These shows of support ranged from sober to conspiratorial and confrontational. “Once they arrive here, how many are directed to education centers run by the far left, or camps in the woods for a Tet Offensive? It is coming,” one man said to a standing ovation from 287(g) supporters.

Some claimed undocumented immigrants were draining the economy by “stealing” jobs and accessing government programs—despite the fact that undocumented immigrants pay state and local taxes, and are not eligible for most government resources. The argument in favor of 287(g)  seemed to be lost in political rhetoric and misinformation, with many claiming an end to the program would result in widespread lawlessness and Tulsa becoming a “Sanctuary City.”

The 287(g) contract is complex, and those fighting against it say the public needs to know the facts. “We have spent hours and hours researching, writing and reviewing each other’s presentations,” said Mimi Marton director of the Tulsa Immigrant Resource Network. “Why? To ensure that we present only facts and make only accurate statements to support our arguments. I have no issue having a dialogue or even a debate. I do, however, have serious issues when people rely on lies, myths and racism instead of facts.”

Cost is one area where the details are especially important. While ICE covers the cost of training officers, local governments are responsible for covering travel, housing, and per diem expenses for officers during training as well as some of the cost of the technology associated with implementing the program, depending on availability of funds.

Most of the costs associated with the program are from the day-to-day care of those detained. A person held under the 287(g) contract is still awaiting resolution of their state or local charges; therefore, the county doesn’t get paid by the federal government. Time spent waiting on state charges to be resolved can vary anywhere from one day to a year, so from the time someone is arrested until the time of their trial, they are incarcerated, and that expense is entirely on the county.

“That’s a big cost to the county that they have not yet acknowledged, or they don’t understand—we’re not sure which one it is,” Marton said.

But the cost in the eyes of advocates like Marton is more than monetary. “Imagine the tentacles that stem from [awaiting trial],” she said. “If you’re a single mom, your kids [enter into] foster care and you’ll likely lose your kids. If you’re the primary breadwinner, your family has no income coming in and can’t pay rent or buy food. And I’m not even talking about the emotional trauma that comes with being separated from your family or being incarcerated for a significant length of time.”

One method that has been used to incentivize counties into participating in 287(g) is offering an additional contract known as the Intragovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA). Through this agreement, Tulsa County is paid $69 a day to hold detainees in the jail. While the 287(g) contract deals with undocumented immigrants who have been charged with a crime, the IGSA agreement deals with detaining those who have crossed the border and are being held.

The money earned from the IGSA agreement (approximately $4.7 million annually) is how Sheriff Regalado justifies the cost of 287(g) to the public. Marton says the Sheriff’s figures don’t account for the costs associated with the contract. “The sheriff pushes this one agenda, or set of facts that talks about how we make all this money from it, and that’s just factually inaccurate. What we want to see is an audit,” Marton said.

Robin Sherman, a legal fellow at Tulsa Immigrant Resource Network, makes the case for ending the 287(g) contract at the Tulsa County Commissioners’ meeting on June 10.“In the Tulsa County budget, there’s absolutely no mention of the 287(g) agreement or any counting of its cost to us whatsoever. And on its face, it costs Tulsa County taxpayers money because we pay the salaries of officers to enforce federal law plus they’re training, etc.,” said Robin Sherman, a legal fellow at Tulsa Immigrant Resource Network. “I’ve done an Open Records Act [request] asking, ‘Have you done an accounting of what this actually costs?’ and I received a response saying ‘We have no records of that. It doesn’t exist.’”  

The lawyers and activists gathered on June 10 discussed the conditions of the jail and the fact that the detainees are held with the general population—with approximately 90 detainees/inmates to one correctional officer. “They are in with the general population, which I think is for the most part probably safe, but when female asylum seekers who are 18 years old are housed with people with Murder 1 charges who have shown violence in the jail… they’re housed together … [with] one detention officer,” said Molly Bryant, outreach coordinator for Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS).

Sheriff Regalado says 287(g) helps keep criminals off the streets. “As long as I am sheriff, I will not get rid of 287(g), because it deals with the criminal element,” Regalado told reporters after Monday’s contentious County Commissioners’ meeting. “If there were people in there that were simply being arrested on things like running a yellow light, stop sign violations, I would end that program and I’ve said that publicly many times. But the fact is that list of 287 detainees is filled with individuals that are committing crimes that impact Tulsa County residents and that I will not abide by.”

Linda Allegro, project director at New Sanctuary Network Tulsa, takes issue with this characterization. “The sheriff has said were only deporting the people who are dangerous … but these small counties all have agreements where they bring someone into their jail for driving without a license or insurance and that is now grounds for arresting them—and there even though his charges might be dismissed, or he’s paid his fine, they’re holding him [in Tulsa], and that’s where the controversy is. Do they really have the authority to do that?”

Marton also pushes back on Sheriff Regalado’s claim, saying deportation as the result of minor violations is not a fate reserved only for out-county detainees. “We’re in there constantly, and we see people there on minor charges, on traffic charges only, or we see people who are there for a significant amount of time, and then the charges are dropped. But unlike citizens, they are not released—they are then put into ICE custody, most likely to be deported,” she said.

Tracy Garcia from Perry, Oklahoma, offers personal testimony to the impact of deportation on the family unit. She says her stepson Jose Garcia was deported last month after being pulled over and detained for driving without a license. After spending seven weeks in a Perry jail cell, Jose was transferred to Tulsa County where he spent another three weeks before being deported.

“He was a good kid—25 years old. He had a good job he had a life. He came from nothing, absolutely nothing,” Tracy Garcia said. “He got caught driving without a valid driver’s license and it ended things badly for him. It took a great big emotional toll [on the family]. My husband and I raised our three granddaughters and the kids had a great relationship with [Jose]. I haven’t begun to tell them. They’re too young to understand all this.”

When asked about Jose and his minor charges outside the courtroom, Sheriff Regalado responded: “I would like to see that name, because we have yet to run across that.”

Whatever the technicalities of Tulsa County’s disputed contract with ICE, which was extended unilaterally by county officials, Jose’s absence remains a cold hard fact for his loved ones in Oklahoma—a familiar story for many immigrant families in 2019. Tracy expects she will have to break the news to her grandkids on the Fourth of July, one of the many holidays Jose celebrated with the family. “He was always with us—and this year, he’s not going to be.”

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