ACLU Claims Sweetwater Sheriff’s Office Made Anti-Immigrant Statements, Violated Civil Rights

Sheriff’s office questions motivation and findings of report, calling it “politically motivated”

The ACLU claims in a new report that his office, which participates in an immigration enforcement program, has violated civil rights, made anti-immigrant statements and advocated for inhumane federal policies. Grossnickle was one of hundreds of sheriffs in the United States to sign an April 2021 letter that asked the Biden administration to stop illegal immigration. (Courtesy photo of the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The American Civil Liberties Union accused the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office of racism and abuse, an assertion the Wyoming law enforcement office described as “politically motivated” and “spurious.”  

The report, published last week, claims the sheriff’s office violated civil rights and racially profiled, made anti-immigrant statements and advocated for inhumane federal policies. The report reviews all 142 state and local law enforcement agencies identified as partners in the 287(g) program, an immigration enforcement program headed by the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) to remove undocumented immigrants. Sweetwater County is the only jurisdiction in Wyoming that participates in the program. 

According to ACLU spokesperson Janna Farley, Sweetwater County Sheriff John Grossnickle signed an April 2021 letter urging President Joe Biden to halt illegal immigration, which cites concerns about “dangerous impacts” of the administration’s border policies. Farley also referred to a 2020 SweetwaterNOW article about an inmate, Brian Allen, at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Facility who filed a complaint in U.S. District Court alleging that a deputy used excessive force while detaining him at the Sweetwater County Detention Center. 

“Immigrant rights advocates have long known and made public our serious concerns about the racial profiling and civil rights abuses enabled by 287(g) contracts,” Antonio Serrano, advocacy director of the ACLU of Wyoming, said in a statement. “Growing significantly under the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, the 287(g) program has become a megaphone for racist and xenophobic rhetoric by sheriffs’ offices and other law enforcement agencies. These agreements create a culture of division and suspicion that doesn’t serve anyone–least of all the community these departments are supposed to protect.” 

Deputy Jason Mower, public information officer for the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office, said his agency has participated in the 287(g) program on a limited basis over the past 12 years. During that time, he said there has never been an allegation of abuse or civil rights violation against the office from a detainee under the program.  

Mower added that the sheriff’s office honors warrants for people who have already been charged and convicted of felonies and who have a deportation order against them. He said detainees are temporarily housed at the county detention center until they can be transferred to immigration centers in Utah or Colorado.  

Regarding the 2021 letter Sheriff Grossnickle signed, Mower said, “He’s in no way, shape or form opposed to immigration. In fact, he has family on both sides who immigrated to this country, but they did so legally, and he takes exception to those who enter the country illegally and then also cause problems for law enforcement and public safety…He’s a constitutional conservative and a lifelong Republican so on the issue of illegal immigration, he’s not going to apologize for that.” 

Mower said he questions the motivation behind the report at a time the country is in the midst of midterm elections.  

“It seems to me politically motivated,” he said. “Not only is it a slap in the face to law enforcement across the country but also an indictment on the Biden administration to eliminate the 287(g) program altogether as the next step in the direction of relaxing any form of border and immigration law enforcement.” Biden, as a candidate in 2020, had pledged to eliminate program contracts initiated while Trump was in office. 

The lawsuit filed by Allen was dismissed earlier this year, and the inmate is not a 287(g) program detainee, Mower noted. 

The Sweetwater County Detention Center has temporarily housed 205 undocumented immigrants since Jan. 2019, according to Mower. The sheriff’s office also has received a total of $115,197.47 from ICE since then for its participation in the 287(g) program. Mower noted the office lost a year of potential ICE funding when it suspended its participation in the immigration enforcement program due to COVID-19 and Sweetwater’s conversion of bed space to a dedicated isolation unit.

The ACLU report also claims that: 55% of 287(g) participating sheriffs have pushed anti-immigrant hate and xenophobia; 55% of participating sheriffs advocated for inhumane immigration and border enforcement; at least 65% of participating agencies have records of racial profiling and other civil rights violations; and 77% of participating jails and prisons have records of inhumane conditions, poor treatment and other abuses against detained individuals.  

“The 287(g) program remains a vehicle for racist and anti-immigrant sheriffs,” the ACLU report states. “Far from having simple political disagreements over policies, several participating sheriffs have instead decided to misrepresent and falsify the administration’s policies to stoke racist tropes, spreading baseless, xenophobic fears of a supposed immigrant invasion of the United States. Based on unfounded legal arguments, some of them even believe that the sheriff has nearly unconstrained authority and can effectively nullify federal policies. By partnering with these sheriffs, the Biden administration is giving them credibility and undermining its own efforts to repair the harm inflicted by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.”  

The 287(g) program was founded in 1996 and allows state and local officers to help with the identification, arrest and service of warrants and detainers of incarcerated foreign-born individuals with criminal charges or convictions, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) website.  

“Those deemed amenable to removal are identified while still secure in state or local custody, potentially reducing the time the noncitizen spends in ICE custody,” the homeland security department’s website states. “The state and local partners benefit by reducing the number of criminal offenders that are released back into the community without being screened for immigration violations. Gang members, sex offenders, and murderers are often identified and taken into ICE custody after serving their criminal sentences, thus being removed from the community. The efficiency and safety of the program allows ICE to actively engage criminal noncitizen offenders while incarcerated in a secure and controlled environment as opposed to the alternative of conducting at-large arrests which can pose safety concerns for the officers and the community and may result in collateral arrests.” 

During fiscal year 2021, 287(g) program agencies encountered about 394 noncitizens convicted for assault, 646 convicted for dangerous drugs, 74 convicted for sex offenses and assaults, 53 convicted for obstructing police, 91 convicted for weapon offenses and 21 convicted for homicide, the latest published data from DHS show.

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