Casa Grande, Ariz. – While an increasing number of cities declare themselves safe zones for illegal immigrants, a sheriff in Arizona is bucking the trend by openly working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol.
“I’m not for sanctuary cities,” said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Lamb. “That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”
Pinal County, south of Phoenix, is the size of Connecticut. Its 450,000 residents are an ethnic mix – black, white, Hispanic and Native Americans.
Lamb took office in January and instituted a cooperative program so his jail deputies are cross trained as ICE agents, allowing them to question and immediately determine an inmate’s immigration status. In practice, it allows for a seamless transition of criminal aliens from the Pima County courthouse or jail to ICE custody for deportation.
“Ultimately their goal is the same as ours – public safety,” said David Marin, an ICE director in Los Angeles. “Those sheriffs and law enforcement agencies realize that by turning over these criminal aliens to us they’re not going to be able to go out and commit additional crimes.”
Currently Pinal County has four jail deputies trained in the ICE 287g program, which allows local police to enforce immigration laws. The Trump administration hopes to expand the program to as many cities as possible.
“My job is to keep the people of Pinal County safe,” said Lamb. “The 287g program allows me to make sure I’m not putting criminals back in the community.”
As trained ICE agents, the deputies are able to tap into Department of Homeland Security computers and determine an inmates’ legal status. And unlike sanctuary jurisdictions, the county honors ICE warrants and detainers and will give ICE a call when an inmate is preparing to leave.
“This county cares about illegal immigration and it’s my job to make sure that we work with our federal partners to uphold the law,” Lamb said.
That includes the Border Patrol, which works closely with the county’s anti-smuggling unit.
“They back us up and we help them,” said Deputy Eddie Joseph.
Behind the wheel of an unmarked, black Dodge pickup, Joseph patrols Interstate 8 and 10, both of which cross east-west across Pinal County.
He watches a battered blue SUV suspiciously go up and down a desert road twice in 30 minutes. The behavior mirrors that of smugglers who are looking to pick up illegals hiding in the bushes along the road.
It’s a seven-day walk from the U.S. Mexican border about 80 miles away. Yet, piles of discarded clothes, water bottles and burlap sacks used to carry marijuana litter the desert in popular spots near the highways.
“We see a lot of drug and human smuggling” Joseph said. “You can see here the foot tracks in the sand. They’re probably a few days old.”
The Trump Administration sees local law enforcement as a front line in its battle against illegal immigration, at the border and in the interior. They do not expect to turn local cops into immigration agents. But once an immigrant is booked into jail, for any offense, they become fair game.
The administration argues it is the federal government’s prerogative – not a local mayor or city council – to decide who gets deported and who does not.
“It’s a slippery slope, when you get into that,” Lamb argued. “You can’t start determining this person meets a criteria and this one doesn’t. The bottom line is, it’s illegal (to be here). If someone is illegal, it’s against the law and my job to uphold the law.”
Marin wished more local law enforcement shared his attitude.
“It’s troubling for us because here’s a criminal alien, somebody that we can use our unique authorities to not only remove them from the community,” he said, “but ultimately remove them from the country and again there’s law enforcement agencies that are just letting them go.”