LAS VEGAS — Police in Las Vegas help federal officials capture undocumented immigrants jailed for nonviolent crimes, a shift in practice that critics say was never made public.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department also has instructed jail officials not to record on inmate booking logs that they were picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to department documents obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Illegal immigration is a top campaign issue for Republicans heading into competitive primaries in 2022, including Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who is running for Nevada governor. Many support deporting undocumented immigrants with any kind of criminal record, while Lombardo's campaign promotes a "zero-tolerance policy for violent criminals."
"When immigrants come to this country illegally and commit violent crimes in our communities, they need to be removed," the campaign wrote in a statement, adding that the sheriff was "unequivocally pro-legal immigration."
But local immigration advocates say the Las Vegas police policy toward nonviolent offenders runs contrary to Lombardo's public position. They also say the department's record-keeping practice is not transparent.
The Review-Journal obtained the policy through a public records request after Lombardo reportedly boasted at a July campaign event that he was involved in deporting 10,000 people.
The policy change became effective one day after the sheriff announced in October 2019 that the county jail would exit its 287(g) partnership with ICE. The elected sheriff heads the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which also operates the jail.
Officer Aden OcampoGomez, a department spokesman, confirmed the practice while describing how the Clark County Detention Center helps ICE take inmates into federal custody.
"Whoever they're interested in, we'll give them a call," he said.
The policy instructs jail staff to contact ICE "24/7" about inmates wanted for deportation.
ICE agents are told when the inmate will be released so that agents can wait outside to take them into custody, OcampoGomez said. The pickups are not recorded on inmates' booking logs, a practice that diverges from record keeping under the 287(g) program.
"In this case, we're not transferring custody. We're releasing this individual," OcampoGomez said.
ICE has flagged more than 800 inmates since the current policy took effect, OcampoGomez said. Las Vegas police do not track how many inmates the federal agency actually takes into custody.
Some critics of the process, including Michael Kagan, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the policy allows Nevada's largest law enforcement agency to obscure its coordination with ICE.
"It's not as if Metro is a passive actor here," said Kagan, whose clinic defends people facing deportation. "They're actively involved in the process and choosing to be actively involved. That means that they certainly have a responsibility to keep records to let the public know what they're doing. That's a basic requirement of transparency."
But one national organization seeking to reduce overall immigration said it found the two agencies' coordination acceptable.
"There's nothing in the law that states you have to meet a certain threshold of crime to be remanded to ICE," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman at Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington D.C. "We've seen countless examples in the past where a local police department has had someone in custody and released them when ICE asked them to hold them, and they went on to commit more crimes. That could have been totally avoided."
State Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said he believed such a policy helps keep undocumented immigrants wanted by ICE from eluding capture.
"There's no motivation (for them) to stick around for a week and wait to be put in jail again," he said. "I think we will always do better if we have cooperation between the state, the county and federal officials."
ICE officials declined an interview, but regional agency spokeswoman Lori Haley wrote in a statement that arrangements with local jails and police departments are crucial to taking undocumented immigrants into custody "in a safe and secure setting."
Haley added that the vast majority of people ICE takes into custody have criminal convictions or pending criminal charges.
Some members of the Clark County Commission, who determine the county jail's annual budget, currently more than $250 million, said they were unaware Las Vegas police help ICE apprehend inmates accused of nonviolent crimes.
"If they changed the policy internally I would hope they would let us know, because before we were clear that this was about violent crimes," Commissioner Tick Segerblom said. "To the extent we can keep families intact is best for Las Vegas."
DEPORTATION DATA NOT AVAILABLE
City jails in the Las Vegas area also collaborate with ICE, but some report keeping more records about apprehended inmates.
The city jail, called the Las Vegas Detention Center, reports more than 160 people have been taken into custody since October 2019, when it also exited the 287(g) program.
The North Las Vegas Detention and Corrections facility could not provide the number of inmates handed over since the jail reopened in July 2020. However, individual inmates' files do indicate if they were picked up by ICE, city spokesman Patrick Walker said.
Las Vegas police do not track how many county jail inmates ICE apprehends, OcampoGomez said. Emails from ICE notifying the jail about inmates of interest are also deleted after one year as a matter of department policy.
Local immigration attorney Dee Sull said when representing immigrants facing deportation, not knowing their chain of custody between law enforcement agencies can make it harder to determine if there was any wrongdoing in the process or subpoena an officer in the case of civil litigation.
After reviewing the Las Vegas police policy, she added: "They're removing themselves from being dragged into a lawsuit."
FORMER 287(g) PROGRAM
Under the now abandoned 287(g) program, Las Vegas police employees were deputized to act as immigration officers and alert ICE of inmates wanted for deportation. The jail also honored ICE "detainers," which allowed them to hold an inmate for 48 hours after their release date at the federal agency's request.
Unlike today, a transfer of custody to ICE was recorded on inmates' records because federal agents would schedule a pickup inside the jail, OcampoGomez said.
Las Vegas police suspended the 287(g) program after a federal district court ruled that ICE detainers could only be honored in states with laws that specifically address civil immigration arrests. However, police officials wrote in a statement they would "continue to work with ICE at the Clark County Detention Center in removing persons without legal status who have committed violent crimes."
ICE contacted the jail about inmates at least 24 times since late October 2020, according to emails obtained by the Review-Journal. The correspondence does not state whether an inmate was taken into ICE custody.
Las Vegas police refused to release to the Review-Journal documents in its possession from ICE that contain information about why the inmates were wanted for deportation, stating the federal agency must release them.
But the police department's own records show at least five of those inmates were arrested for non-violent crimes before ICE inquired about them. Generally they were charged with some combination of traffic violations, drug and theft charges.
Lombardo brought renewed scrutiny to Las Vegas police practices after the July campaign comment that he had helped deport 10,000 people, reported by The Nevada Independent. In September, his campaign's Twitter account tweeted the sheriff "developed an internal system to identify and report illegal immigrants."
Lombardo's campaign website states that after he suspended the 287(g) program the sheriff "used extra personnel and dedicated scarce resources to working directly with ICE to determine the identity of violent criminals in other ways."
ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Athar Haseebullah said he viewed the new policy as "a distinction without a difference" from the 287(g) program, outside of no longer holding inmates up to 48 hours for ICE.
"They've found a workaround," he said. "And even within that workaround, they don't have to track any numbers, statistics or data."
Lombardo's campaign did not respond to repeated inquiries about the internal system or the "10,000 deported" claims.
Officer Larry Hadfield, a police spokesman, said the department could not determine how many inmates were taken into custody under the 287(g) program because it no longer has access to ICE records.
An estimated 180,000 undocumented immigrants lived in the Las Vegas metro area as of 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. That was about 8.2% of the population, one of the highest rates in the U.S. and more than double the national average.
While ICE typically apprehends undocumented immigrant inmates as they exit the jail, there is no rule forbidding agents from taking them into custody inside the jail, Hadfield said.
"If they are there and the inmate is being released, they can take them into custody," he said.