Regardless of whether Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone or challenger Jerry Sheridan wins election in November, a vestige of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s time helming the agency will remain in place: federal immigration agents screening every person booked into the county’s jails.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents started working inside county jails in 2011 after the Department of Homeland Security rescinded the authority of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies to enforce federal immigration laws after finding the agency racially profiled Latinos and discriminated against them in county jails.
The practice isn’t required by any state law or county policy, and immigrant community leaders have recently renewed calls to end the jail partnership between MCSO and ICE. In late May, Phoenix police wrongly charged protesters with felonies, including young immigrants with protection from deportation. The arrests and felony charge led ICE agents to initiate deportation proceedings for four people — proceedings that wouldn’t have happened had immigration agents not been stationed in the jail.
Both Penzone, a Democrat, and Sheridan, a Republican, agree that ICE agents should screen all people who are booked through county jails, regardless of how serious the alleged crime was that led to their arrest. Both said the practice is an appropriate one that aligns their shared belief that law enforcement agencies should collaborate with each other.
“I will continue my commitment of consistent, constitutional application of the law while supporting other state and federal law enforcement agencies,” Penzone said in a June statement to Arizona Mirror.
In fiscal year 2019, MCSO’s Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix ranked second in the nation for the place that received the most ICE transfer custody requests, also known as ICE detainers. ICE detainer data obtained by the Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) shows that MCSO jail received 2,910 ICE detainer requests in fiscal year 2019. In fiscal year 2018, the number of requests for that jail was 3,334.
Origin of ICE inside MCSO jails dates to end of controversial 287g program
Sheridan, who oversaw the jail system at MCSO for 12 years until late 2010, explained the origin of the ICE presence in the Maricopa County jails.
It was rooted in a 2009 change to the agreement ICE had with MCSO under the federal 287g program. That partnership allowed up to 160 MCSO sargeants, deputies and detention officers to enforce federal immigration law under certain circumstances. MCSO dubbed the unit of 287g-certified employees the Triple I (Illegal Immigration Interdiction) Strike Team.
MCSO and ICE entered into the 287g agreement in 2007. But after street authority was denied in 2009, the only place MCSO could still act as immigration agents was inside the jails. In late 2011, the Department of Homeland Security completely revoked the 287g agreement with MCSO following findings that the agency racially profiled Latinos and discriminated against Latino inmates who spoke limited English.
That’s when ICE agents began to screen people inside MCSO jails, Sheridan said.
“Originally, we used detention officers that were 287g-certified. When President Obama took away authority from MCSO, that’s when ICE came in and used their own agents,” he said.
Sheridan explained that every person booked into an MCSO jail is asked whether they were born in the United States. If they were born outside the U.S., they are screened by ICE, he said.
In 2016, Jacinta Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen born in Mexico, refused to answer questions during the booking process without an attorney present and had an ICE hold placed on her. She sued MCSO and the county, ultimately winning in court. The court ordered MCSO and the county to pay Gonzalez about $81,000 for the lawsuit.
ICE holds were an Arpaio-era practice where MCSO held off on releasing people from its jails to accommodate the transfer of people in its jails past their scheduled release by a city or county judge. Penzone ended that when he assumed office in 2017.
Penzone recently told The Arizona Republic that because ICE’s practice of screening those arrested for minor and major crime is legal, he will allow ICE agents in his jails.
Sheridan said he also backs the MCSO jail partnership with ICE.
“That’s the best place for them to be,” he said.
From discretion to priority under Trump
Sheridan inaccurately understands that ICE agents only target people with criminal convictions inside county jails. It doesn’t.
“I do not have a problem with ICE being involved in the booking process. ICE is there to identify illegal aliens that have committed crimes — they are criminal illegal aliens, that is the focus,” Sheridan said.
However, ICE doesn’t wait until there is a criminal conviction to take people into custody or initiate deportation proceedings. Instead, most of the people ICE goes after are those who have simply been accused of a crime.
Under Obama, ICE had certain enforcement priorities, which meant federal immigration agents largely focused only on people who committed certain crimes. But the Trump administration ended that, making all immigrants without authorization to live or work in the country a priority for deportation.
Sheridan said if MCSO were to stop allowing ICE agents to screen people at its jails, the two agencies would still collaborate.
“If ICE wasn’t in the jail, we would still be sending them the information the old fashioned way, and those detainers would still be put on people that are here illegally,” Sheridan said.
Like Penzone, Sheridan said he can’t do much for those who are arrested and placed in deportation proceedings, even if they have protections like DACA, since immigration reform falls on Congress.
The Arizona Democratic Party, which is endorsing Penzone’s re-election, also punted to the federal government when asked to respond to community calls to remove ICE from county jails.
“Immigration reform does not happen at the MCSO. Sheriff Penzone swore an oath to uphold all laws,” party spokesman Edder Díaz-Martínez said. “As Maricopa County Sheriff, Penzone does not pick and choose which laws to uphold. Our previous sheriff cost taxpayers millions of dollars for this specific reason.”
There is no state law that requires MCSO partners with ICE so federal agents can screen people inside the county’s jail system.
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, emphasized that such collaboration is voluntary.
“An ICE detainer request is just that: a request. Participation in this program is entirely voluntary — and failure to opt out of it brings damaging consequences to many members of our community,” said Victoria Lopez, advocacy and legal director with the ACLU of Arizona.