New York Sheriff Who Joined ICE Program May Coast to Re-Election

Sheriff Patrick Russo faces no challengers. But the state legislature could act to restrict local cooperation with the federal agency.

Daniel Nichanian   |    April 11, 2019

A banner drop against the 287(g) program (Photo by PuenteAZ/FLickr under CC)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

A year into President Trump’s presidency, many jurisdictions were looking to counter the federal crackdown on immigration, but Sheriff Patrick Russo decided to dial up enforcement in New York’s Rensselaer County.

He joined ICE’s 287(g) program, which authorizes local officers to research the status of people held at the county jail and transfer them to ICE. Rensselaer is now the only New York county in this program. Russo then wrote in a local op-ed that he did not organize a forum on this because his “experience with public forums is that they become a platform for protests.” (He did go on Fox News, however.) He also traveled to the White House for an immigration event with Trump.

Immigrant rights groups have targeted 287(g) nationwide. In 2018, the officials in three populous Maryland and North Carolina counties lost their re-election bids in contests that were shaped bytheir decision to participate in 287(g). All three counties have since left the program.

But the prospect of Rensselaer County repeating that pattern dropped precipitously last week. Russo is up for re-election this year, but no one filed to challenge the Republican incumbent by the deadline. This swing county voted twice for President Barack Obama and then for Trump. Last year, the GOP District Attorney lost to a challenger endorsed by Democrats.

Russo, unopposed in his bid for a second four-year term, told the press this week that he intends to renew his county’s 287(g) agreement when it expires in June.

This series of events reflects an environment in which state and national party structures do not pay sufficient attention to local elections that are decisive for issues that are integral to the national discourse, such as ICE’s power. Presidential contenders, a few of whom have outlined platforms on immigration, attract immense attention, but their election is still a year away. Sheriff’s races will decide the scope of ICE’s reach in hundreds of counties this year.

Still, what paths remain for a change to Rensselaer’s immigration policy?

The door remains ajar for candidates critical of 287(g) to emerge. But this now entails more acrobatics than before. A party could nominate someone via write-in in the primary, but this first requires securing the opportunity to do so by filing a petition. The deadline is today, and no petition was filed with the county board as of writing. Alternatively, candidates have until May 28 to qualify for the general election ballot as independents.

The head of the county’s Democratic Party did not reply to repeated requests for comment on the difficulties of recruiting a candidate, and on whether it might assist a write-in or independent challenger. “It is curious that the Democratic Party in Rensselaer County couldn’t be bothered to run anyone against a sheriff who has clearly become an outlier,” Siobhan Burke, an organizer with ICE-Free Capital District and the Troy Sanctuary Campaign, told me.

These groups helped organize opposition to Russo’s decision in late 2017. 287(g) opponents like Burke argue that cooperating with ICE erodes the relationship between local law enforcement and county residents, and causes distress among immigrants. “I serve a congregation that includes a number of immigrants,” Gusti Linnea Newquist, a pastor at Troy’s First United Presbyterian Church, told me. “Even folks who are able to go through the hoops, even those who are American citizens and immigrants, find themselves fearful pretty much all the time.”

Russo has responded to such criticism by saying that 287(g) promotes security. “I do not see how removing illegal aliens with criminal records has any effect on public safety other than to make the community a safer place,” he wrote in the Troy Record. But 287(g) contracts also authorize sheriffs to notify ICE of people who are jailed but not yet been convicted of a crime.

In his Troy Record op-ed, Russo also noted that the 287(g) program only applies within the jail, and that it therefore does not impact other spaces in which local law enforcement interact with people. Zachary Ahmad, a policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, argues that what goes on in the jail has bigger ramifications. “It’s important to remember that correctional officers don’t work in a silo,” he told me. He added that the program “might encourage other officers to target immigrants and engage in racial profiling because you have set this tone that Rensselaer County is this place where local law enforcement has signed up to do ICE’s bidding.”

Also concerned about other levels of law enforcement, the Troy Sanctuary Campaign has called on the city of Troy, which is the seat of Rensselaer County, to adopt a resolution regulating how city employees and police officers interact with residents. The city council tabled the proposal in December amid opposition by the Troy Police Benevolent Association.

State politicians can also dictate reform. In 2017, California adopted a “sanctuary state” law that compelled local sheriffs to terminate their existing 287(g) partnerships.

New York’s legislature could emulate California in banning 287(g). Ahmad said that this could be done alongside other restrictions on ICE cooperation, for instance whether ICE can see when jails are releasing people. Democratic lawmakers José Serrano and Karines Reyes have introduced a bill that would prevent counties from entering ICE relationships including 287(g). It would also provide indigent immigrants threatened with deportation with a right to legal representation.

Similar legislation passed the state Assembly in 2017, but it has yet to make any progress this year. The legislature is entirely in Democratic hands since January. Another pending bill would help shield people who attend courthouse proceedings from arrest. Brad Hoylman, a Democratic Senator who filed the latter reform, told me in a written message that he remains “extremely concerned about the damage that President Trump’s racist immigration policy, carried out by ICE, is doing to our judicial system by discouraging the participation of witnesses and victims who may be undocumented.” The legislature did vote in March to shield some noncitizens convicted of misdemeanors from deportation.

A law that bans 287(g) contracts could have repercussions beyond Rensselaer. While that county is the only one in the program at the moment, two Republican members of Congress have urged other New York sheriffs to join.

This deficit of electoral contestation around Rensselaer County’s immigration policies echoes what happened earlier this year in another 287(g) jurisdiction, in Florida: Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams, a Republican, was up for reelection, but his Democratic challenger indicated that he would maintain the contract. Besides Rensselaer and Duval, four other counties with 287(g) contracts have local elections this year in New Jersey, Louisiana, and Virginia.

Burke of ICE-Free Capital District recounted that the “spike of awareness around immigration issues” that followed Trump’s election initially “focused on federal policy,” but that organizers then turned their attention to policies pursued at the municipal and county levels. Will that dynamic reverberate enough this year to affect ICE’s local reach in New York and elsewhere?