How the National Sheriffs Association Colludes with the Anti-Immigration Lobby
Or, how a handful of people create a fake movement
This month, Gallup released a poll that found 58% of respondents were “dissatisfied with the level of immigration,” with the biggest increase among Republicans, despite data from the Census Bureau showing that immigration had actually declined in 2021 as compared to previous years.
The same week, the National Sheriffs Association held an event at their Winter Conference in D.C. called “Drugs, Death, Destruction and the U.S. Border,” led by Idaho Sheriff Kieran Donahue. Donahue has emerged as a strong anti-immigration advocate even though the nearest border to his state is with Canada. (His nephew was killed, he told Fox News, by an undocumented person in a drunk driving crash.)
In a 2021 interview with Fox News, Donahue praised Trump’s policies and condemned the Biden administration, basing his anti-immigration stance on the flood of fentanyl in the state and the uptick in overdoses. “Those drugs come from one place,” a trooper says in the segment, “and that’s south of our border.” (Presumably, Mexico.)
Side note: Donahue’s speech at the NSA conference was mostly about the so-called “narco saints,” which is a fairly popular moral panic among law enforcement that associates certain Mexican folk deities and traditions with drug traffickers. It’s a racist take on the Satanic panic that is used by law enforcement to demonize and otherize people from Mexico and Central America.
It’s not coincidental that views of immigration in the U.S. are a source of unhappiness for people because the right has simply been pounding the issue over and over as part of their midterm strategy even though there are no facts on the ground to support the proposition that immigration from Mexico and/ or Central America has somehow dramatically increased. A report from Pew found that immigration was the top topic covered by right-leaning media, more than healthcare and the economy. Most of those stories were critical of Biden, natch.
A great deal of this media-generated anxiety about “the border” has been propagated by sheriffs and assisted by anti-immigration groups who amplify the message and create an echo chamber that makes the issue appear more viable and “fraught” than it really is. One of those groups with close ties to sheriffs is the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR).
During the summer of 2021, FAIR held a rally at the Mexico-Arizona border. The space (I believe) was a private ranch where a portion of the so-called “border wall” was constructed during the Trump era. The rally was held the day after the National Sheriffs Association summer conference in Phoenix and featured around 60 sheriffs as guests. Of course, their leader was Sheriff Mark Lamb.
Links between FAIR and sheriffs are well-documented and not new. (There are quite a few with major ties to FAIR, including Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who is on FAIR’s Executive Board.) Readers might remember Arizona’s SB 1070 (the “show me your papers law”), which was the invention of FAIR and Kris Kobach, who worked as the legal counsel for FAIR in the early 2000s and inspired a host of other anti-immigrant bills across the country. Most notably, SB 1070 enabled the monstrous reign of Joe Arpaio. (In another newsletter, I describe Kobach’s legal theories and his influence. Summary: worse than you thought.)
Particularly during the Trump administration (where FAIR and like-minded groups were specially empowered by racists), FAIR exerted its influence as a sort of go-between for sheriffs and the federal government. A Washington Post story from November 2021 illustrated how the staff of FAIR emailed sheriffs and asked for referrals to get more sheriffs to join 287(g). This whole thing culminated in a 2018 meeting between sheriffs and Donald Trump which was orchestrated by, yes, FAIR as well as the White House. (It’s the event where Trump became an honorary sheriff.)
Like the “Border Rally” above, FAIR also holds a number of events (like training events and visits to the border, including “Border School” in Texas and hanging out with border militias) to encourage sheriffs to participate in immigration enforcement and paints a picture of “dangerous immigrants” in order to make targeting immigrants sound like an important part of law enforcement. Such information sharing has been welcomed by the National Sheriffs Association as well as state associations (including places like North Dakota, Maryland, and Virginia). FAIR also files a number of amicus briefs, often joined by the National Sheriffs Association or state sheriffs.
FAIR was originally invented by a Michigan ophthalmologist named John Tanton as part of his quest to generate a series of legitimate-seeming organizations that would all advance an anti-immigration agenda. Tanton had the idea in the late 1970s to create a series of connected groups – a grassroots group, a think tank, and a legal advocacy group – that would all advance an extremely restrictive anti-immigrant message.
Tanton’s original interest in immigration restriction was environmental, based on eugenics theories that Black and Brown communities were reproducing faster than whites, which would lead to overpopulation. The net results were extremely racist, and most of Tanton’s early backers were avowed white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers. Tanton himself tried to keep his network organizations “race-neutral,” which is evident in the rhetoric of both FAIR and FAIR-aligned sheriffs today, who avoid specific race-based language and opt for messages focused on criminality and method of migration – today, those messages are specifically about human trafficking and fentanyl.
FAIR garnered some early fans like Walter Cronkite and Warren Buffet, who were influenced by the environment movement and the need to both reduce populations and reduce foot traffic through the borderlands, which is often held up as causes of environmental degradation and erosion in the hard, rocky landscape. (Much of this is described in Reece Jones’s book White Borders, which I highly recommend if you are interested in more details. Also, the Buffet family is the subject of a future newsletter. It's bonkers!)
FAIR has a booth at every NSA conference where they distribute anti-immigrant propaganda and continue to assert the legal theory invented by Kobach, that sheriffs can insert themselves into immigration enforcement even though the legal precedent is clear that immigration is a state law invention. It’s an essential part of their stated mission since 2004: “Creating coalitions with police and sheriff ’s [sic] departments all across the country to confront the issues posed by mass immigration.” (Note: Some states, like Arizona, Florida, and Texas, seem poised to challenge this settled precedent with various laws and executive orders that threaten federal authority over immigration law. “Stare decisis is lame-o,” I might describe this movement, and it must be the subject of its own newsletter as there is too much to say here.)
There are a handful of official ways that sheriffs collude with ICE. One is by participating in 287(g) agreements (or “Warrant Service Officer” agreements, which were a program created by FAIR and Florida sheriffs) which in essence deputize sheriff’s offices to act as ICE agents. They are allowed to interview suspected undocumented immigrants and hold people for further processing. (287(g) used to include a provision that allowed sheriffs to conduct actual immigration sweeps, but that was eliminated after Sheriff Joe Arpaio abused it.) 287(g) does not allow sheriffs to enforce immigration law by pounding the pavement and arresting people, but, because it’s so easy to arrest people for various offenses, and because in many states (e.g. Texas) you can take someone to jail for ANY offense, even one that is only punishable by a fine, the whole point is null. Local law enforcement cannot say they are looking for immigrants, but they do it anyway.
Sheriffs can also decide whether to honor detainer requests, which are requests from ICE to hold people beyond their release date, usually 48 hours. This is so that ICE can send someone to pick people up for further detention, interrogation, or deportation proceedings. These are the most common way people are arrested — 70% of ICE arrests are through detainers. Since detainers aren’t signed by a judge, it’s not clear they are legal, so during the Trump administration, some sheriffs made a show of not honoring them by way of defying racist Trump priorities. (What are they doing now? Unclear. At least one sheriff in North Carolina, who got elected as Mr. Resistance Sheriff, says he does not honor detainers but “he reports to ICE when he cannot confirm the citizenship of a prisoner in his jail, as state law requires.” Sounds like collusion to me, but do carry on.)
It’s important to know that detainers are generated through Secure Communities, an Obama administration invention that relies on biometric markers. ICE doesn’t even pick up most of the people it issues detainers for because the system spits out so many. It’s also a really sloppy system, which makes for greater anxiety because, as a person in jail, you have no idea what will happen to you or when; there are also lots of mistakes and errors that no one bothers to verify. (Plus, since the whole thing happens in jails, there’s a cloud over the whole process, which makes it difficult for outsiders, e.g. journalists, to see what is going on.)
Then, sheriffs can participate in ISGAs, which are agreements to hold people for ICE for money. ISGAs include local county jails and private detention centers and are really a way to make some money. Finally, and less discussed in the usual literature, sheriffs can participate in immigration enforcement by partnering with Border Patrol, ICE, the FBI, or any number of federal agencies in task force missions. These are usually ways to funnel more federal money to sheriff departments in the form of tanks, guns, and helicopters (even snowmobiles) through federal programs like Operation Stonegarden. (Note: While the feds assiduously track mileage, they do not track “metrics relating to longer-term public safety efforts, including community engagement, problem-solving and crime prevention.” Things that might be good to know.)
Take, for example, Sheriff Terry Johnson in Alamance County, who, according to recent reporting, makes “no less than $2.48 million” from agreements with ICE to house people who are arrested. (ICE is contractually obliged to pay for 50 beds even if it uses less. The feds also pay for transportation.) Johnson has a history of racist comments and was known to use his position to intentionally target potential immigrants for traffic stops.
All of these could stop tomorrow if the federal government wanted to, but it doesn’t, so it won’t. 287(g) agreements increased dramatically under Trump — from about 35 in 2017 to more than 140, with 15 being sheriffs linked to FAIR — and Biden has said he would end the abuses of the program. He’s canceled a few, including the one in Bristol County but the program still exists. No one even seems to want to both to challenge FAIR’s narratives over immigration even though FAIR – I will say it again – is a fake grassroots organization and literally exists just to produce a propaganda circle that supports the narrative of sheriffs who are colluding with immigration enforcement.