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Lombardo defends immigration record at forum

As the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary heads into its final weeks, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is pushing back against recent attacks from fellow Republicans meant to portray him as soft on immigration.

“I’m freaking tired of hearing. it. There is no sanctuary jurisdiction in Clark County or the state of Nevada. There is no catch or release program in the state of Nevada,” Lombardo said Tuesday during a candidate town hall hosted by the Southern Hills Republican Women. The event featured nine of the Republican gubernatorial candidates vying for the party’s nomination and the opportunity to face off against Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in November.

Lombardo was directly responding to comments made by former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller during Tuesday’s forum. When asked by moderators about how he would address crime if he were elected, Heller took a thinly-veiled swipe at Lombardo without naming him.

“If you have a sanctuary city, you have a dangerous community. You practice catch and release, and you have a dangerous community,” Heller said.

Immigration is a key campaign issue in the crowded Republican primary, with most of the top candidates holding similar stances that support deporting undocumented immigrants with any kind of criminal record.

An estimated 210,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Nevada as of 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, or about 7 percent of the state’s population.

Lombardo’s top primary opponents, including Heller and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, have tried to use Lombardo’s record on immigration in an attempt to portray him as a less conservative candidate. Lee’s campaign launched an ad earlier this month that claims calls Lombardo a RINO — a Republican in name only — and claims that “Lombardo loves sanctuary cities.”

Las Vegas police have walked a fine line on enforcement of U.S. immigration laws during Lombardo’s tenure as sheriff. The department previously cooperated with federal authorities to remove dangerous criminals, but at the same time, officials expressed fear of alienating the Hispanic and other immigrant communities by handing over residents for deportation over minor crimes.

Lombardo told the Review-Journal in 2017 that deportation can help the department fight crime, but that it should be used only against “the worst of the worst.”

In response to a court ruling in 2019, Lombardo withdrew Metro from the 287(g) program, its then partnership with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to alert federal officials about jail inmates wanted for deportation.

But Lombardo has also been criticized by immigration advocates for a quiet policy of notifying ICE when an undocumented immigrant in custody was about to be released, allowing agents to take them into custody. The policy change became effective one day after the sheriff announced that the county jail would exit the 287(g) program, a move that immigration advocates have called a “workaround” of the court ruling.

Now as he runs for governor, Lombardo has spoken on the campaign trail about his role in deporting 10,000 people and tweeted support for a “zero tolerance policy” on illegal immigration.

At Tuesday’s town hall, Lombardo blamed the perception of his immigration record on the state Legislature for the “ill-conceived, uninformed passing of laws that make it detrimental for us to prevent crime and hold people accountable,” although he did not specify to which laws he was referring.

Longtime Nevada radio host Alan Stock, who moderated the town hall, said the two-hour event would be aired at 2 p.m. Saturday and again at noon May 8 on on KXNT 840-AM.

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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