Nine Nevada sheriffs sign onto letter blaming mass illegal immigration on Biden border policies

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Las Vegas

Nine Nevada sheriffs from rural counties and Carson City have signed on to a letter blaming President Joe Biden’s policies for increased criminal activity related to illegal immigration and urging the Democratic president to embrace the border policies of the Trump administration, including resuming construction of the border wall.

In the letter titled “Help America’s Sheriffs Keep Our Neighborhoods and Communities Safe by Halting Illegal Immigration,” a group of 274 sheriffs wrote earlier this month that their policing resources are being “overwhelmed” by criminal activity related to an increase in illegal immigration. The letter specifically points to transnational gangs, guns, dangerous drugs and human trafficking as the dangers.

“In a myriad of ways, you and your administration are encouraging and sanctioning lawlessness and the victimization of the people of the United States of America, all in the name of mass illegal immigration,” the sheriffs wrote to Biden.

The letter does not cite specific evidence of increased illegal immigration under the Biden administration nor evidence of criminal activity linked to undocumented immigrants. It primarily focuses on blaming Biden for the crisis at the border — a characterization that is in dispute, as the Biden administration has actively avoided use of the word crisis, unlike the Republican Party — and immigrant advocates have criticized the letter for wrongly painting immigrants as violent criminals.

The nine Nevada sheriffs who signed the letter are Ken Furlong (Carson City), Jesse Watts (Eureka County), Daniel Coverley (Douglas County), Frank Hunewill (Lyon County), Sharon Wehrly (Nye County), Richard Hickox (Churchill County), Aitor Narvazia (Elko County), Ron Unger (Lander County) and Scott Henriod (White Pine County). Neither sheriff from Nevada’s urban centers — Joe Lombardo in Clark County and Darin Balaam in Washoe County — signed the letter. Balaam’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday as to whether the sheriff had been approached to sign on. On Friday morning, a spokesperson for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said that Lombardo has not seen the letter.

Many claims about a crisis at the border have relied upon data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection on encounters with migrants. Those numbers show that encounters at the southern border hovered between 70,000 and 80,000 from October through January, before increasing to 101,000 in February and more than 172,000 in March. 

However, Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, explained that with the border closed to most asylum seekers because of the pandemic, a migrant who is denied asylum and expelled could return to the border again, creating a new encounter with the U.S. Border Patrol, meaning a new encounter is not necessarily a new migrant arriving at the border. 

The number of encounters in February and March are also similarly large to numbers from the middle of Trump’s presidency, as border encounters climbed over 100,000 per month from March through June in 2019. 

“In 2019, the number of people approaching the border was climbing very rapidly, and I don't think these sheriffs complained about Donald Trump,” Kagan said.

Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong told The Nevada Independent that he signed onto the letter because he was concerned about the issue of immigrants entering the country illegally and “creating havoc in our communities.” He also noted that though he agreed with the intent of the letter, he did not necessarily agree with all of the verbiage used.

“We're tasked with protecting our communities,” Furlong said. “It's difficult to protect our communities, when we're not applying regulation or control over who's coming into this country.”

Though a multitude of studies show that undocumented immigrants in the country are not more likely to be arrested or incarcerated than Americans born in the United States, Furlong pointed to one specific case of criminal activity by an undocumented immigrant in Northern Nevada. In that case, Wilber Ernesto Martinez Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Carson City in January 2019 as the prime suspect in four murder cases across Washoe County and Douglas County.

Furlong acknowledged that incidents involving people living in the country illegally and the type of criminal activity listed in the letter are rare in Carson City, but he also cited concern for the states that share a southern border with Mexico, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, as a reason for joining the letter.

“I do know the struggles that many of the law enforcement agency fixtures, such as me, have suffered when we're dealing with illegal immigrants and our ability to safeguard our communities,” he said. “I want to support those southern border states that are struggling immensely, just to get through every day.”

The other eight sheriffs who signed the letter were unavailable or did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday afternoon.

The letter has been panned by immigrant advocates such as Erika Castro, a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the organizing director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Castro said the letter focused on an “anti-immigrant narrative.”

“It's very disheartening knowing that we have sheriffs in our state of Nevada that have those anti-immigrant feelings,” she told The Nevada Independent. “At the end of the day, if they really are here to protect and serve our community, that includes everyone.”

Kagan also criticized the letter as a move rooted in partisan rhetoric and noted that the letter does not provide evidence to back up claims about undocumented immigrants bringing increased amounts of crime to the country.

“I think they mean that a president they didn't vote for is in office, so they want to blame problems on him,” Kagan said.

He also said that the sentiments expressed make sense coming from sheriffs because those officers tend to come from rural, white areas that vote Republican.

“The general phenomenon holds that these are largely elected politicians from areas that mostly voted for Donald Trump for president, expressing anti-immigrant views without factual basis,” Kagan said.

The letter calls on the Biden administration to halt its “pro-illegal immigration policies” and return to “the common-sense, public-safety-supporting border policies of the previous administration.” However, Kagan said that the immigration policies of the Biden administration have not been a significant departure from the policies of the Trump administration.

“I would personally criticize Biden for leaving in place most of Donald Trump's policies so far,” he said. “Biden has left in place a near total border closure… turning away people who are applying for asylum on the grounds of public health without actually much clear public health justification.”

Biden has continued a Trump-era policy called Title 42, which was first invoked during the pandemic by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on March 20, 2020. Since then, the policy has allowed the federal government to close the southern border to nonessential travel and expel asylum seekers at the border. Groups of lawyers and lawmakers, including Vice President Kamala Harris, even raised issues with the Title 42 policy last year.

Though the Biden administration has granted asylum to unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, the Trump administration had been doing the same since late November, when a federal judge blocked the Trump administration from expelling migrant children under the Title 42 policy. 

The letter from the sheriffs has also been joined by other pushes against Biden’s border policies that Kagan said are rooted in partisanship. Arizona’s attorney general is suing the Biden administration over its immigration policies and decision to stop the border wall construction, and the state’s Republican governor recently declared a state of emergency and sent National Guard troops to the border.

“It seems to me that we have now emerging a pattern that when there is a Democratic president, Republican border governors sound the alarm that there’s an emergency,” Kagan said. “I think that that is also a lot of talk, and it's not a serious contribution to any immigration policy challenges that we face.”

Update: This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. on April 23, 2021 to include a response from Sheriff Joseph Lombardo's office.

Chance encounter with law enforcement is nearly life-altering in last Nevada jurisdiction overtly partnering with ICE

A photo of the sign next to the road entering Nye County.

It was late in the afternoon of Oct. 19 when Victor Cordón was driving a four-wheeler on the side of a road in Amargosa Valley, doing his daily trash run for a small farm he had been working at for three months.

On that day, the farm owner's chihuahua wiggled under the farm's fence and started following Cordón down the road.

A Nye County sheriff deputy saw Cordón and the dog trailing him and stopped the 54-year-old for having a dog without a leash. The encounter eventually led to Cordón being arrested for unpaid traffic tickets, jailed and held for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"I never thought that this was going to happen to us," said Cordón's daughter, Estefania Cordón, in an interview the day after her father was arrested. "I see it on TV. I just never thought it was gonna be us."

Victor Cordón, a Las Vegas resident for about 25 years, came to the U.S. in 1988 from Guatemala and was granted asylum. He applied for his necessary work permits until 2013, when financial problems hindered him from paying for the $400-a-year permit, according to Estefania Cordón, 29. 

"But he's never, ever, ever had immigration issues until he went through that little town," she said.

Cordón's experience is typical in that local law enforcement agencies "become essentially the suction valve that pull people into the deportation pipeline," said Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic.

"It's typical. It's widespread. It's a serious problem," he said.

ICE regularly uses press releases to tout the arrests and deportations of violent criminals such as sex offenders and murderers and says that it generally prioritizes such criminals for removal, but people with minor offenses or no criminal history often get swept up in removal processes.

Of the almost 186,000 people deported in fiscal year 2020, more than one-third had no criminal history, according to the 2020 ICE annual report

The report does not provide details on the offenses of the 119,000 with criminal convictions or pending charges, but it highlights the deportations of more than 4,000 known or suspected gang members, 31 known or suspected terrorists and 350 high-profile removals that gained attention from the media or federal or foreign governments.

Even though President Donald Trump's anti-undocumented-immigrant rhetoric spurred newfound attention to the country's immigration systems and deportation processes, Kagan said that ICE partnering with local law enforcement agencies and having them act as "the long arm of ICE" is a long-term trend.

Despite receiving the most attention, large-scale, surprise ICE raids at workplaces or homes are the exception in how people end up in removal proceedings, Kagan said.

The more common way for people to get absorbed into the deportation process is through ICE agents requesting that law enforcement agencies hold jailed individuals longer than they would otherwise — known as a detainer — to give ICE time to pick them up. 

The detainer process is streamlined through the 287(g) program, one of ICE's formal partnerships with law enforcement agencies. Nye County is the only Nevada jurisdiction currently participating. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department terminated its 287(g) program in 2019 following pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Nye County received a letter from the ACLU at the same time but continued the program. The contract was renewed in June of 2020, and will be in effect until either ICE or the sheriff's office terminates it.

David Boruchowitz, a captain at Nye County Sheriff's Office, said other law enforcement agencies around the state are still working informally with ICE and that ending the 287(g) program was more of a publicity move than a real change in their relationship with ICE.

"Now they're just doing it a little bit harder," he said. "We see no benefit to that." 

Collaborations with ICE, whether informal or enshrined in a contract, are voluntary and could be barred by local and state officials.

Detainers

ICE regularly frames detainers and its 287(g) program as a way to keep local communities safe. 

ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley told The Nevada Independent in an email that ICE relies on information exchange with law enforcement agencies. When agencies do not honor detainer requests, she said it undermines ICE's ability to keep the communities safe.

"In many cases, these individuals pose a demonstrable threat to communities," Haley said. "By lodging detainers against those individuals, ICE makes every effort to ensure that removable aliens are turned over to ICE custody after their criminal detention rather than being released into the community where many abscond or re-offend." 

But a 2020 study led by the University at Buffalo, part of a growing breadth of similar evidence, found that the size of a city's undocumented immigrant population does not increase its violent crime rate. On the contrary, the study found that increases in the population of undocumented immigrants in a city correlates with a decrease in crime, particularly in burglary, larceny and overall property crime. 

Kagan said the agency's rhetoric on arresting and deporting people with serious criminal records does sometimes match the outcome. 

"But other times, it is a case like this, with an unpaid traffic ticket being someone's worst offense," Kagan said of Cordón’s situation. "It can destroy a family and destroy a person's life."

ICE has several avenues to discover individuals the agency believes have probable cause to be deported. 

Agents can go to local jails to look through police and arrest records and request a detainer on a person in custody. An individual also may be flagged in the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) databases after police officers run fingerprints through the FBI's databases to check for arrest warrants. The prints are automatically sent to DHS, which checks them against its immigration databases and may then request a detainer with the agency holding the individual. Law enforcement agencies can also directly notify ICE when they suspect an individual may be of interest for possible immigration violations. 

Boruchowitz told The Nevada Independent that notification to ICE may happen after booking an inmate. Some of the standard questions during the booking process relate to immigration, such as questions about a person's birthplace and citizenship. When people answer in a way that indicates they may not be a U.S. citizen, Boruchowitz said the sheriff's office contacts ICE.

That's what happened with Cordón.

During the stop, the officer discovered Cordón had unpaid traffic tickets from 2014 for driving over the speed limit, driving without a seatbelt and driving with a suspended license. The officer then arrested him.

Cordón called his daughter from the station. When Estefania Cordón talked to the sheriff's office about her father's charges and possible bail, she said the office did not mention anything about contacting ICE. 

She spent the next hour and a half calling relatives and the owner of the farm, asking for money for her father's $940 cash bail. When she called the sheriff’s office around 8 p.m. to tell them she would bring the money for the bail the next morning, it was already too late. ICE had been alerted and had requested a detainer on her father.

"Within that hour and a half that they were booking him and then we were gathering that money, just an hour and a half, they called ICE to detain him," Estefania Cordón said. "They didn't even give him 24 hours, 12 hours, half a day. They didn't say, 'Oh, let's call ICE in the morning.' They called ICE that same moment."

Estefania Cordón said the news sent her into a panic attack. She said living with the unknown of what would happen to her father because of ICE was "breaking" her. She had trouble eating and sleeping. Thoughts of her dad were on a constant, rapid loop, causing her to almost "black out" from what was going on around her.

"He has this life here ... we are his life. His is our life. I will move mountains, I will do whatever I have to do, even if they deport him, I will do whatever I have to do so that that county pays for what they do," Estefania Cordón said. "It's someone's life. It's someone's father. It's someone's grandfather."

Estefania Cordón said she believes her father's arrest was "absolutely" a case of racial profiling. Nye County is less ethnically diverse than Nevada as a whole, and is about 75 percent white and about 15 percent Latino, according to census data

When asked for comment on the accusation that Cordón's stop was a case of racial profiling, Boruchowitz said the description of the incident was inaccurate.

"We do not racially profile," Boruchowitz said. 

The 287(g) program

As of December, 150 law enforcement agencies across the country were participating in the 287(g) program.

Boruchowitz said the program's benefits for Nye County include streamlining the detainer process because an officer can complete all steps during the booking process, prior to housing an individual, instead of the process becoming a "convoluted back and forth" between ICE and the agency.

Outside of the program, an ICE detainer request can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days after notification, depending on the day and time and the individual's immigration situation. With the program, Boruchowitz said it takes about 30 minutes to an hour.

Boruchowitz emphasized that the county's participation doesn't come by way of a political agenda.

"Our take is from a criminal justice standpoint, which is that there is a process for immigration, and whether we want immigration reform and whether we want to change the way immigration occurs, that has nothing to do with us," Boruchowitz said. "The current processes and the current procedures that are in place are there, and we work with them and in that realm.” 

Nye County has three active sheriff's deputies trained under the 287(g) program and has had six officers trained since the program started in the county in 2017.

Nye County has been Nevada's lone participant in the 287(g) program for about a year. Las Vegas Metro ended its participation and the City of Las Vegas said it would no longer honor detainers in October 2019 after the letter from the ACLU detailing a ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California that said detaining inmates for longer than necessary in order to allow ICE to pick them up was unconstitutional. 

The Lyon County Sheriff's Office also was participating but terminated its contract early around December of 2019 because the program was too "time consuming" for the staff, said Lyon County Jail Lt. Josh Barnes.

But the lack of formal collaboration doesn't mean law enforcement agencies aren't still working with ICE. 

"I would not say that [Las Vegas'] cooperation with ICE is over by any means. I think it's merely been limited," Kagan said. "It's been much more of a trench warfare where the trenches move incrementally — it's hardly been dramatic."

Boruchowitz said that other agencies in Nevada may have officially gotten rid of the 287(g) program, but "everyone I know is still sending information to ICE." He said those agencies are simply making the detainer process more difficult for themselves.

"The only thing you're doing is making the inmates wait several days for this process to happen, and I see no benefit to that," Boruchowitz said. "We are firm believers that the sooner an inmate is informed of what's happening and how it's happening, the sooner they can legally participate in that process and help themselves out."

He added that agency decisions to step away from the 287(g) program but continue to actively participate in the detainer process is "bullshit" and essentially is still working with ICE behind the public's back.

"If any entity is saying they will not participate in the 287(g) program, 'but we do send everything to ICE and then they do it,' what are you doing? You're not really addressing … the problem that's being complained about," he said.

State law

Kagan emphasized that state and local governments could choose not to work with ICE at all.

"They don't have to participate in federal immigration enforcement," Kagan said. "So when a man like [Victor Cordón] is taken to the deportation pipeline, through police, that's something that the local police, and also the state Legislature and the governor all need to be asked about because all of them could delay this process or cut this process off if they wanted to."

During the 2019 legislative session, several bills sought to adjust law enforcement agencies' relationship with ICE. A bill sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Selena Torres that would have required reporting on police's work with ICE was ultimately passed as a shell of its original proposal, only requiring police to give an inmate the reason for interrogation about immigration status. 

One measure that died was Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores's bill that sought to prohibit police from arresting an undocumented person solely because of immigration issues and without probable cause for a crime.

Kagan said he's seen Nevada's congressional delegation have a stronger effect than state lawmakers in cases involving Nevadans and ICE. He said federal representatives, particularly Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, intervene "heroically" and have "saved families."

Such intervention may have played a role in Cordón's situation.

The day after her father was held for ICE, Estefania Cordón said she reached out to Rosen's office, which told her it would contact ICE. The next day, her father was released with no explanation for why he was no longer a target for ICE — and that his tickets were dismissed.

"I do not know if that scared them off or what that did, but [ICE] did not want anything to do with my dad," Estefania Cordón said the day after he was released. "My dad has always been there for us and when this happened, I moved mountains. I don't know how I did it, but I got him out." 

When asked about the office's intervention, Jorge Silva, Rosen’s deputy chief of staff and communications advisor, said the office cannot disclose private information.

ICE also cited privacy issues and did not comment on Cordón's case. 

But Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly told The Nevada Independent in an email that ICE removed Cordón's detainer after learning he had asked for asylum.

Now that Cordón is back at home, his family is working with a lawyer to straighten out his immigration status. After that, Estefania Cordón said she's interested in pursuing a civil case against Nye County.

"There's a lot of things that they did very wrong," Estefania Cordón said, explaining that her dad, who has difficulty reading and speaking English, wasn't offered paperwork in Spanish nor access to an interpreter. The family also told Spanish newscast Univision Noticias he had been neglected under the care of the sheriff's office.

Wehrly said in an email that the office's rules and regulations are available in Spanish, the office uses an electronic interpreter system and staff are trained to help those who have difficulty reading documents. She also said about half of the staff are fluent in Spanish. 

In response to the family saying Cordón was neglected by staff, Wehrly said, "These allegations are not accurate. His entire stay within our facility is recorded." 

Although she is thankful that her dad was released, Estefania Cordón said the situation was "weird" in that the emotional rollercoaster of her father's arrest and detention was so suddenly halted by ICE and dropped without telling the family why.

"They thought they were going to get away with it. And if they could've, they would've deported my dad," she said. "They probably weren't expecting someone to come out and make all that noise, so they dropped everything."

Nye County Commission demands lawmakers 'cease any action' restricting Second Amendment rights

A photo of the sign next to the road entering Nye County.

Nye County commissioners are formally demanding that Nevada lawmakers “cease any action restricting the Right of the People to keep and bear arms,” and say bills lawmakers propose along those lines “will not be tolerated.”

Commissioners unanimously passed the resolution during their regularly scheduled meeting in Tonopah on Monday. The measure also demands that Gov. Steve Sisolak veto any measure infringing on Second Amendment rights.

“Elected officials take an oath of office to support the Constitutions of Nevada and the United States,” Don Turner, president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, said in a statement, “and these statements reaffirm to the Nevada Legislature, that oath of office.”

The resolution comes a week after Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly announced she would not be enforcing a newly passed law requiring background checks on almost all private party gun sales and transfers signed into law by Sisolak last month. The measure won’t take effect until Jan. 2, 2020.

Six other sheriffs have made similar declarations, according to the firearms coalition.

The Elko Daily Free Press reported last week that the Elko County Commission will consider a resolution at its March 20 meeting that would essentially declare that the county would not enforce the background check law. Elko County Sheriff Aitor Narvaiza told the paper that other rural counties, including White Pine, Eureka, Douglas, and Lander, will also be expressing their disagreement with the law.

The resolution describes “infringements” on 2nd Amendment rights to include “any laws that deny due process for the civil forfeiture, seizure, confiscation, destruction or other regulation of privately owned and possessed firearms by persons who have not been adjudicated as prohibited possessors per Nevada and/or federal statutes.”

It also opposes “any laws that order the surrender, civil forfeiture, seizure, confiscation or destruction of personal property that was not illegal prior to 2019, and is in violation of constitutionally protected property rights, the establishment of a centralized database for firearms ownership” and “firearms laws that are not applied equally across all jurisdictions, cities, towns, and counties within the State of Nevada.”

It excludes any law prohibiting the sale or possession of guns by felons or people with a history of dangerous mental illness.

Democrat Steve Yeager, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee that hears bills related to gun laws, said the resolution would not change the way the Legislature conducts business and said he disagreed that proposals under consideration this session violate the 2nd Amendment.

“I would not vote for or advance a bill that I believe violated a constitutional amendment so I strongly disagree with that sentiment. And in fact I don’t think [the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Legal Division] would authorize a bill that was unconstitutional,” he said. “So [they’re] certainly entitled to their opinion, but I don’t think we’ve done any of that this session nor do I anticipate we will.”

This story was updated at 12 p.m. on March 12, 2019 to add comment from Steve Yeager.