As the Republican gubernatorial primary heats up, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is trying to reframe a decision he made two years ago to withdraw his agency from a jail-based immigration enforcement partnership known as 287(g) and is asserting on the campaign trail that he has played a role in deporting 10,000 people.
Withdrawal from the agreement — which came after a California judge’s ruling against core elements of partnerships between federal immigration authorities and local jurisdictions, and after groups including that ACLU argued they led to unconstitutional, warrantless arrests — was celebrated by immigrant advocates as an unexpected victory at the time. But in the primary’s race to the right, he’s eagerly trying to shed the moniker of “Sanctuary Joe” and criticism from Republican primary frontrunner Dean Heller that “Las Vegas became a sanctuary city.”
“I bet you can ask any other candidate when you confront them in the future, ask them how many people they removed from the State of Nevada. Ask them,” Lombardo told the Southern Hills Republican Women club in July, to applause, according to recordings reviewed by The Nevada Independent. “I’m talking about saying, eh, 10,000. I’m comfortable with that number.”
Lombardo recently tweeted that he “developed an internal system to identify and report illegal immigrants” after the ACLU sued to prevent police from using an allegedly error-ridden national database. The tweet was the first time ACLU representatives said they had heard mention of the system, and said it raises concerns.
“It seems to be, at best, non transparent, and at worst, an egregious violation of civil rights, and something that really flies in the face of the notion of being transparent and being open with the public about what's going on,” said Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada.
Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic that defends people facing deportation, said immigrant advocates have long suspected cooperation was still happening between police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on an informal or ad hoc basis, even after Metro withdrew from the formal partnership two years ago. His concern is that instead of prioritizing people who are serious threats to public safety, Metro may be turning over people who do not have legal status but have otherwise lived quiet lives in the community before encountering police.
“He personally, as well as his department, has typically tried to assure people that we only turn people over to ICE if they have a serious criminal record,” Kagan said. “Now he's telling the public that there's actually a massive deportation secret line running through Las Vegas Metro, which is pretty scary for the very large number of immigrants living in Clark County who would have to worry about that if they ever need to call the police.”
Asked for comment on whether he thinks his system erodes trust among the immigrant community, Lombardo's campaign responded that he "has played a key role in keeping our communities safe and will continue to utilize every available resource to do so."
"There will always be organizations that advocate for those who commit violent crimes against our communities and they will, no doubt, continue to bring lawsuits against law enforcement agencies doing the hard work to keep us safe," the campaign said in a statement.
Metro and immigration enforcement
Advocates for immigrants have for years decried the ways in which local police assist federal agencies with immigration enforcement. Such a close relationship can lead to minor infractions landing immigrants in the deportation pipeline even if they are far from “the worst of the worst” — a group that Lombardo identified in 2019 as the focus for removal.
Opponents say it can also chill the relationship between police and the immigrant community, deterring undocumented people from calling the police for serious crimes because they fear being referred for deportation. And critics argue that police should not be diverted from the work of local crime prevention to do the job of the federal government.
An estimated 7 percent of Nevada’s population is undocumented, or about 210,000 individuals.
The issue came to a head in 2019, when a judge in the Central District of California ruled that ICE should not be requesting police agencies hold people in jail longer than they otherwise would be for the issue that led to their arrest, unless the state had a law authorizing civil immigration arrests. It also blocked ICE from making such requests based on databases with insufficient information to establish probable cause that a person was in the country illegally.
That struck at the heart of programs such as 287(g), through which ICE placed requests called “detainers” for people who had been booked in local jails. Local police would typically detain the person beyond the initial term in jail so that ICE agents had the opportunity to pick the person up and take them to immigration detention.
In October 2019, the ACLU sent a letter to Lombardo laying out the reasons they believed his agency’s 287(g) partnership was unlawful.
“LVMPD should immediately cease its practice of detaining individuals beyond the time at which they are entitled to release from custody on the purported authority of ICE detainers,” wrote Sherrie Royster, the ACLU of Nevada’s then-legal director.
Less than two weeks later, Lombardo announced that the agency was ending its 287(g) arrangement, although he added that the court ruling was a “setback” and the agency indicated it would “continue to work with ICE at the Clark County Detention Center in removing persons without legal status who have committed violent crimes.”
“I am optimistic that this change will not hinder LVMPD’s ability to fight violent crime,” Lombardo said at the time.
Among the concerns the ACLU raised in its 2019 letter complaining about the partnership were flaws in a database ICE was using to identify people who should be the subject of a detainer. Lombardo honed in on that point when asked by a Nevada Independent reporter for details about the internal system for identifying undocumented immigrants that he has touted on the campaign trail.
“We can no longer use that database. The judge decided it was unconstitutional, it was flawed. The data was flawed,” he said last month after a campaign office opening event in Las Vegas. “So subsequently, instead of relying on a database, just picking up the phone now. We simplify it and talk directly to ICE to determine whether the person that we have in custody is an interest of theirs, and whether they wish to remove them.”
Kagan said he doesn’t think such phone calls would violate the California order. But Haseebullah said the ACLU’s concerns extended beyond the database and involved the way detainers can spur arrests without valid warrants in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
“They've now twisted it and attempted to make it seem as if it was just simply some sort of flawed database item, and he corrected it internally somehow without telling anyone, all under a shroud and cloud of secrecy,” he said. “And so we're eager to see what the internal system is that he's developed, and that has not been shared with the public.”
The Nevada Independent has placed a public records request with Metro seeking further documentation about what the system looks like.
Different audiences, different messages
Lombardo has taken differing tones when describing his immigration actions on the campaign trail.
At an event with the civil rights organization NAACP in mid-July, Lombardo argued that the 287(g) program was not as draconian as it is sometimes described, and that the number of detainer requests that led to deportation peaked at just 42 percent during the Obama administration. He also chafed that he was quoted in a newspaper article as supporting “zero tolerance to undocumented immigrants,” saying that “is absolutely false” and the point he had been trying to make was that his agency only works to connect people with ICE after they have been arrested for another reason.
But later that month, speaking to the Republican women’s group, Lombardo made his assertion that he had contributed to 10,000 immigrants being removed from the country. On Sept. 9, he tweeted that he would “ensure sanctuary cities are banned,” and on Sept. 10, he tweeted that “a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal immigration & as your Gov. I'll implement that policy across the state to protect you, your children, & your grandchildren.”
Asked what he meant by zero tolerance, Lombardo's campaign issued a statement on Wednesday saying the candidate has a "zero tolerance policy for violent criminals and believes illegal immigrants that commit a violent crime should be deported just like any American citizen that commits a violent crime should be put behind bars."
Haseebullah said the public shouldn’t find out about a number of deportations so big only because a campaign is happening.
“That in and of itself is shocking because ... public statements, up until this point, that the sheriff and that Metro provided weren't sort of boasting or bragging about that, but now all of a sudden it's, I've deported over 10,000 people or close to it,” Haseebullah said. “That's a huge number of potential people that participate in our economy … that is information that should have been shared versus their public statements that they simply weren't going to participate in this program.”
Kagan said that he thinks the number is likely an overstatement and an example of campaign “puffery,” based on his analysis of a database of immigration data maintained by Syracuse University. But he added that the statements could dissuade people who need help from law enforcement from reaching out.
“He's putting people in danger in order to run for office,” he said.
Jannelle Calderon contributed to this report. Updated at 6:26 p.m. to add comment from Lombardo's campaign.