Las Vegas police feud with federal immigration authorities: It’s ‘complicated’

Updated March 24, 2017 - 10:04 pm

The relationship between Las Vegas police and federal immigration authorities is tense, but neither side will say exactly what’s behind the bad blood.

The divide between the agencies was apparent Monday, when a new weekly report by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) put Clark County at the top of a list of “non-cooperative jurisdictions.” That was a public shaming of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which operates the county jail, where the lack of cooperation supposedly takes place.

Metro declined to play ball with the feds on some immigration matters in recent years, but says this year that it is back in compliance with ICE policy. It, in turn, disputed the ICE report’s accuracy and said it couldn’t get any answers about why it was listed in the report from ICE or its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

So did ICE miss the memo, or are Las Vegas police still not fully cooperating?

The answer to that question remained unclear Friday, with the next report on noncooperative jurisdictions expected in the coming days.

‘WORST OF THE WORST’

There are indications Las Vegas police may still be holding to ICE guidelines issued during President Barack Obama’s last term, called the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which categorized undocumented immigrants according to the severity of their alleged crimes and criminal records. The reasoning behind the policy was that it allowed both police and immigration officers to focus on deporting the most dangerous undocumented immigrants and engendered cooperation with law enforcement by law-abiding immigrants.

President Donald Trump in January changed those guidelines and reactivated the Secure Communities program, which requires engagement with ICE on any inmates suspected of being undocumented immigrants — not just “the worst of the worst.” Metro has repeatedly used that phrase to describe its priorities since it joined an ICE program called 287(g) that deputizes its officers as immigration agents in 2008.

Liesl Freedman, general counsel for Metro, declined to spell out whether the department continues to prioritize in terms of its communications with ICE, saying “the nuances between the different types of categories that ICE has … are complicated.”

But she said the Police Department, as a general matter, accepts ICE detainers “for persons who have prior convictions and ICE has probable cause to believe are in the country illegally.”

And Metro will notify ICE about an inmate’s custody status if the department receives a request, she said.

That may not be enough for ICE.

NO DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN ‘CRIMINAL ALIENS’

“We have made our priorities clear,” ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said Wednesday, adding that there are no distinctions between categories of “criminal aliens.”

“These jurisdictions who are setting their own priorities, that does not align with ICE,” she said.

She said the agency’s list was based on “jurisdictions that have — in the past — publicly expressed unwillingness to fully comply with ICE’s detainer requests (asking for a local jail to hold potentially deportable inmates for up to 48 hours) or have not provided ICE with sufficient time to allow for the safe transfer of a detainee.”

“Should a jurisdiction make a posture change with regard to their policies involving detainers that is captured as a matter of public record and that ICE can point to, ICE will revise the report accordingly,” Rodriguez said in a statement.

Rodriguez said full compliance means honoring detainer requests, including holding an inmate for 48 hours beyond the normal “probable cause” detention period, and giving ICE advanced notice before an undocumented immigrant is released.

Federal officials have threatened to withhold a number of grants from jurisdictions that do not cooperate with ICE directives. Metro has said those grants add about $9 million to the department’s annual budget.

Neither Rodriguez nor a regional ICE spokeswoman would say explicitly whether Metro is currently in full compliance with agency policies.

Las Vegas police have been fighting the allegation that it’s a “sanctuary city” for about a year, at least.

In May 2016 — just weeks before Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo signed a new agreement with ICE — the county was listed in a memo by the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general as a jurisdiction that was receiving federal funds while not participating with federal immigration directives.

‘PRESS RELEASE AS EVIDENCE’

Lombardo fired back: In an August 2016 letter obtained by the Review-Journal through a public records request, the sheriff told the Justice Department that Metro has been participating in the 287(g) program on a “24/7 basis” for nearly a decade.

And according to Lombardo’s letter, the department made 630 notifications to ICE in 2015.

“I find it troubling that the Office of the Inspector General would arbitrarily list Clark County in an assessment of so called sanctuary cities with no request from my agency for information, no visits to see first hand how we operate, and with nothing more than a press release as evidence,” the letter said, referring to a 2014 release stating that the department would no longer be holding inmates past their release date due to constitutional concerns raised by federal lawsuits at the time.

“I would request that Clark County Nevada be removed from this list … until a true assessment of our operations and cooperation with ICE can be made,” Lombardo wrote at the end of the letter.

Freedman, the lawyer for Metro, said the department never received a response to its request for an assessment.

In the meantime, she said, the department is working on resolving its issues with the report issued by ICE on Monday.

Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Follow @WesJuhl on Twitter.

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