In Ramsey County, a glimpse at the confusion surrounding Trump’s new immigration stance

By Mike Kaszuba

Nearly two years ago, the Trump administration took office and pressed to harden immigration policies.  New documents show how one Minnesota governmental entity – the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office – found itself caught in a confusing conflict that pitted the White House against many local officials.

“I wanted to make sure that the sheriff is aware that local law enforcement is not legally required to assist the federal government,” Katy Kozhimannil, a Vadnais Heights resident, wrote to Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier in late February 2017, a month after Trump took office.  “Is Sheriff Serier voluntarily making the decision to enforce Trump[‘s] new policy of targeting lawful undocumented immigrants?”

As the White House pushed local officials to assist the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to help detain undocumented immigrants, Sheriff Serier reiterated his office’s stance with the same carefully-crafted, four-paragraph answer.  “We do not engage in holds of people for civil immigration issues,” he replied in an email two days later.  “Our Sheriff’s Office does not ask for proof of citizenship or immigration status.”

But with Trump now in office, the political landscape was complicated.  One of Serier’s top administrators, Booker Hodges, provided a more revealing glimpse at how the sheriff’s office was trying to straddle a suddenly touchy issue.  In an internal memo authored just 11 days after Trump took office, Hodges wrote that the sheriff’s office should “keep our messaging consistent” on what had become a complicated topic, and offered a “Reader’s Digest version” of the sheriff’s office policy.  “If ICE wants to come pick up the inmate [when we release them] they can,” Hodges stated. “Outside of our jail.”

The newest documents were obtained by Public Record Media, a non-profit based in St. Paul.  Taken together, they reveal the behind-the-scenes policy and political uncertainties that unfolded not only in Ramsey County in early 2017, but also among other law enforcement agencies and officials in Minnesota.

Documents show confusion over immigration policies

The documents, for instance, provide insights into Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and where Sheriff Rich Stanek was criticized by immigrant advocates for cooperating with federal immigration officials and by ICE for not cooperating enough.

In a February, 2017 e-mail, Carmen Lopez Ford – the American Indian and Latino community liaison for Hennepin County’s sheriff office – insisted that Hennepin County’s supposedly more aggressive stance was being mischaracterized.

“I know a lot of you maybe have concerns of what my office is doing regarding immigration enforcement, and hearing stories from different people in the community about my office helping ICE to do raids wearing plain clothes,” Lopez Ford wrote.  But, Lopez Ford added, Hennepin County “does not detain or hold jail inmates at ICE request – we require a warrant or judicial order.”

(Both Stanek and Serier lost their election bids in November 2018 to continue as sheriffs in Hennepin County and Ramsey County, the state’s two most populous counties).

As the Trump administration pushed for more cooperation, the head of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association sent a series of advisories on immigration issues to Ramsey County.  “Trust me, I do not know how this is supposed to work,” wrote Jim Franklin, the association’s then-executive director, in a March 2017 e-mail.   Franklin added that he hoped “some federal judge somewhere in the system can figure out a way to make [immigration] detainers actually legal.”

In another e-mail to Minnesota sheriffs six days later, Franklin expressed more frustration.  Referring the state’s sheriffs to a recent news story, he told them the “White House is proposing [law enforcement lose] funding if they do not support their immigration policies.

“Absolut no win for Sheriffs????” he added.  “Please consult with your respective County Attorney and don’t be surprised when the political correctness feedback comes from all sides on this issue.”

Franklin also expressed his frustration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was pressing local law enforcement officials to resist the new Trump administration directives.  In his March 28, 2017 e-mail, Franklin complained that “of course the ACLU is running all over the country providing their guidance and notice to Sheriffs with the expressed intent of future law suits.”

Franklin meanwhile told Minnesota’s sheriffs in a late March 2017 e-mail that Stanek would hopefully provide some answers. “Sheriff Stanek has been in DC for the past couple of days meeting with the President, Atty General and other Homeland Security and ICE officials,” Franklin wrote.

“He has reported that additional Judges are being hired to process these ICE orders, which will give them the appropriate ‘Judicial’ signature,” Franklin added.

DHS memo forces changes to local practices

Franklin’s comments – like those of other law enforcement officials across the country – followed a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo on March 20, 2017 in which the federal government issued what it called a Declined Detainer Outcome Report.  The report attempted to pressure local law enforcement agencies by making public those that were not cooperating with ICE detainers or requests for notification, a move by local jurisdictions that DHS described as “potentially endangering Americans.”

In explaining its stance, the federal agency stated that “ICE places detainers on aliens who have been arrested on local criminal charges or who are in local custody and for whom ICE possesses probable cause to believe that they are removable from the United States, so that ICE can take custody of the alien when he or she is released from local custody.”

After complaints from local law enforcement agencies, DHS “temporarily suspended” the report, saying that it was continuing to “analyze and refine its reporting methodologies.”  The report initially listed Hennepin County as not complying, a move that drew criticism from Stanek, who said the report was inaccurate and asked for an apology.  The report, while creating confusion, was nonetheless welcome news for Ramsey County.  “The report thankfully does not indicate Ramsey County, Mpls. or St. Paul,” wrote Rick Larkin, St. Paul’s director of emergency management.

Even without the report, the federal government’s new stance under Trump was a dramatic change.  In a speech that made national headlines in 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that local law enforcement officials who refused to abide by the new federal policies were guilty of “a rejection of our immigration laws.”

Hennepin County advisory previously guided sheriffs

In Minnesota, many law enforcement agencies had been following an advisory from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office issued in 2014.  Citing a legal landscape that had at the time “changed dramatically,” the county attorney’s office had concluded that “ICE detainers are requests rather than mandatory orders.  In other words, an ICE detainer or DHS Form I-247 without more is not legally sufficient to hold an individual in custody.”

In Ramsey County, ICE detainers were discussed in a June 2015 memo from Undersheriff Joe Paget that announced that the sheriff’s office “will not hold individuals in custody at the [adult jail] when the only authority for that individual to be held in custody is a Department of Homeland Security/ICE Immigration Detainer (DHS Form I-247).”

The memo added that “if continued detention of an individual for ICE is authorized based on judicial authority, ICE will be notified immediately when they become the holding agency.  All continued detentions under this directive must be approved by a Lieutenant.”

But in a March 2017 e-mail to sheriffs, Franklin summarized the dilemma now facing sheriffs in Minnesota.

“For many of our MN Sheriffs Offices,” Franklin wrote, “you may well find your name on that (DHS) list, since back in 2014/15 we [advised] many of our Sheriffs to follow the legal analysis published by the Hennepin County Attorney.”

Ramsey County faces questions from all sides

Four days after Franklin’s memo was circulated to the state sheriffs’ officials, Serier was again being asked about his policy – this time from a Ramsey County commissioner who himself was being questioned by a citizen.

“What is the nature of the relationship between Ramsey County and ICE in terms of sharing of information regarding citizenship status?” constituent Daniela Bell wrote in an e-mail to Jim McDonough, a county commissioner.

Less than a half an hour later, McDonough would write to Serier: “Can you help provide some answers to the questions?”

Another county commissioner, Victoria Reinhardt, had a question on a closely-related topic:  What would be the impact should Ramsey County be viewed by the Trump administration as a “sanctuary” jurisdiction that was seen as overly sympathetic to undocumented immigrants?

“Our vision of opportunity and prosperity for all can only happen by treating everyone with dignity,” Reinhardt stated, and then added that “turning our deputies, in essence, into federal immigration agents does exactly the opposite.”

The questions would keep coming for Serier and his sheriff’s office.

One would come in late March 2017 from Candace Okeson, a Maplewood resident who stated that “I am a big believer in what the ACLU is fighting for.”  She then listed what she described as the ACLU’s suggested policies that should guide local law enforcement, and wondered whether they were being followed in Ramsey County.

“To the extent ICE [has] been granted access to Ramsey County facilities,” Okeson began, “individuals with whom ICE [engages] will be notified that they are speaking with ICE” and ICE agents “shall be required to wear duty jackets and make their badges visible at all times.

“Yes or No?” she asked.

A proposed reply from Sgt. John Eastham read: “We require any person, who wishes to gain access to our detention facility as a Law Enforcement officer, to produce verifiable credentials.”

He then added: “The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office policy follows the United States Constitution and all of the federal and state laws that interpret it.”