Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins had spent years advocating for the removal of undocumented immigrants when he received a prized photo in his inbox in February 2019. It came from a group that has long fought to slash the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.
In the photo, Jenkins and more than three dozen other sheriffs posed under a chandelier in the East Room of the White House with a beaming President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Jenkins, serving his fourth term as sheriff in the western Maryland county, quickly forwarded the photo to an acquaintance. “Check this out,” he wrote in an email obtained by The Washington Post.
“Pretty important!” she replied moments later. “You all meet to discuss how to get rid of the illegals?”
“Indeed!” Jenkins wrote back. “I have had the pleasure of being with the Pres on at least five occasions.”
The White House gathering in September 2018 was part of a two-day media and lobbying blitz by the Federation for American Immigration Reform to promote border control and immigration enforcement, including a contentious national program known as 287(g) that for years has drawn support from Jenkins and other sheriffs.
Operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the program empowers state and local law enforcement officers to act with federal authority: questioning, reporting and detaining undocumented immigrants. Although ICE promised that the program would focus only on serious criminals, pro-immigration groups have repeatedly warned that the partnerships enable hard-line sheriffs to target undocumented immigrants leading peaceful lives.
Despite mounting concerns about discriminatory policing, the Trump administration aggressively recruited local law enforcement partners and courted sheriffs who championed similar views on immigration policy, according to dozens of internal ICE emails obtained by The Post.
“Gents – please forward up the chain to whomever handles the 287(g) stuff,” an ICE officer emailed in 2017. “Barnstable County is interested in at least hearing the sales pitch.”
“He could hit a huge area all at once,” an ICE officer wrote after a colleague suggested attending a monthly meeting of local law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania. “I think we can arrange a similar situation in Delaware.”
Under Trump, the number of partners in 287(g) and a related program quadrupled, from about 35 in 2017 to more than 140 earlier this year. About 15 are sheriffs who have been publicly linked to FAIR, which has been described by pro-immigration groups and others as an anti-immigrant organization. FAIR has disputed that characterization.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security terminated a long-standing 287(g) agreement with the sheriff’s office in Bristol County, Mass., where officers at the local jail used a stun grenade, pepper balls and dogs on immigrant detainees who protested conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Immigration advocates have appealed to the Biden administration to terminate the program altogether. Biden promised during his campaign to “end the Trump administration’s historic use of 287(g),” but no plan has been announced. The administration has laid out new enforcement priorities that will likely lead to far fewer deportations under the program and others.
As immigration arrests in the interior of the United States fall to their lowest level in years, activists say the partnerships are an unnecessary and unjust vestige of prior administrations. Concerns about the program have been documented for years in numerous media reports and by immigration policy analysts and civil rights groups.
“The federal government has been willing to sign agreements with essentially anyone willing to join them,” said Jorge Loweree, the policy director for the American Immigration Council. “Frankly, we don’t believe that there’s a meaningful way to actually create accountability. There’s just no reason to go down this road anymore. It’s immigration enforcement by dragnet, essentially.”
The process has separated families and created bureaucratic, legal and financial challenges for those detained or deported. Undocumented immigrants describe lives confined to the shadows: families that choose not to go to hospital emergency rooms or report domestic violence and other crimes because they fear any contact with local law enforcement.
“You’re living with the grace of God, constantly worried the cops are going to show up,” said a 48-year-old undocumented worker who did not want to be identified because he lives in Hall County in Georgia, a 287(g) partner since 2008. “It’s a constant fear. Nobody can protect you.”
ICE has hailed the 287(g) program as a “force multiplier,” a critical alliance to root out those deemed eligible for deportation. The agency’s website describes dozens of people arrested or convicted of serious crimes who since 2019 have been identified by local law enforcement as undocumented immigrants.
In response to questions from The Post, ICE said it “continually evaluates the overall effectiveness of the program” and provides strict oversight of local partners. “While the 287(g) program has yielded successes, ICE recognizes the program is not universally regarded as the most effective or appropriate model for all stakeholders or in every jurisdiction,” the agency said.
Jenkins and other sheriffs say the program has helped protect their communities. “I believe in my heart of hearts that this is a public safety benefit to the country, to the county and to this community,” said Jenkins, 65, in an interview.
Sheriffs point out that their power under the program is limited, applying only to undocumented immigrants who are arrested on non-immigration-related offenses and taken to jail. There, under 287(g), they can be questioned about their immigration status, investigated, put into the removal process and held on detainers until ICE takes custody of them. A related effort allows local officers to serve warrants and make arrests in jails on behalf of ICE.
“As a lawman, I think it’s well within our lane and our duty to make sure that anyone who is in our jail for a local or state charge is thoroughly vetted,” said Jackson County, Tex., Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback, who is among the program’s most vocal advocates. “I’m not picking on anybody. They’re already there.”
Pro-immigration groups contend that thousands of immigrants over the years have been targeted and unnecessarily reported to ICE. Local law enforcement officers have discretion in how they respond to driving infractions, liquor-law violations, disorderly conduct and other misdemeanor offenses. Officers can decide where and when to patrol, whom to let go with a warning and whom to take to jail.
The arrest rate among sheriffs’ officers for lower-level offenses in counties that participated in 287(g) generally declined from 2008 through 2015, a Post analysis of FBI data found. The rate spiked in 2016 and reached its highest level in a decade in 2019. One expert said the shift could be attributed to Trump’s law-and-order campaign rhetoric and promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
“Sheriffs and other law enforcement officials may have seen this shift in political winds as supporting a more aggressive approach to law enforcement in immigrant communities,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, which has reported on the impact of 287(g) for years.
The Post analysis was based on the most recent self-reported data submitted by about 2,700 sheriffs’ agencies to the FBI, including about 130 that have participated in 287(g) or the related program during that period.
The data does not identify whether those arrested were undocumented or processed under the 287(g) program. Activists say undocumented immigrants are unfairly targeted for arrests on low-level crimes.
The arrest rate for low-level crimes in Maryland’s Frederick County in 2019 was almost double the rate for officers in nonparticipating agencies, the analysis showed.
Jenkins said arrests in Frederick County are based on criminal activity and not prompted by the 287(g) program or discrimination against immigrants. He noted that officers who are tasked with 287(g) duties work in the jail and are not deputies who patrol and make arrests.
“No law enforcement agency in this community ... is profiling or targeting these people,” he said.
A promise and a push to expand
When the 287(g) program was introduced two decades ago, ICE promised a simple mission: The agency would train and deputize local law enforcement officers to broaden immigration enforcement efforts.
Testifying before Congress in 2005, Paul Kilcoyne, then-deputy assistant director of ICE’s Office of Investigations, said ICE was focused on criminals and not the “landscaping type of individuals.”
“I can assure you that the training that we provide and the supervision that we provide … do not vary from what our mission is — and the mission is focused on criminal organizations, those individuals who pose a threat to the border security,” Kilcoyne said.
Several studies conducted by activists and researchers on arrest patterns found, however, that local law enforcement officers were detaining immigrants under the program after they were picked up in lower-level arrests, including traffic offenses. The pattern was noted in Mecklenburg County, N.C., where a former county sheriff, Jim Pendergraph, declared at a 2008 national conference on the role of local police in immigration enforcement: “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.”
Pendergraph, who retired as sheriff in 2007, was working for ICE at the time. In an interview, Pendergraph said his comments, which were widely reported, showed a willingness to help police leaders and sheriffs who were worried about rising crime rates. “I thought I had a good answer,” he said.
Federal regulators also raised concerns about the program. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office found that some officers in local jurisdictions were detaining immigrants for carrying open containers of alcohol, urinating in public or speeding. In 2010, Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that ICE had not followed its internal procedures to vet the “suitability” of local officers for the program and did not collect statistics on the race and ethnicity of suspects to determine whether “unlawful profiling” had occurred.
The Department of Justice twice sued sheriffs in the program for allegedly targeting, detaining and arresting Latinos, often in traffic stops.
One was Sheriff Terry Johnson of Alamance County, N.C., who, according to the Justice Department, said of Mexicans, “Their values are a lot different — their morals — than what we have here. In Mexico, there’s nothing wrong with having sex with a 12-, 13-year-old girl. ... They do a lot of drinking down in Mexico.”
Homeland Security ended his agency’s 287(g) agreement in 2012.
The Justice Department settled the case after Johnson agreed to launch a “bias-free” initiative to improve policing practices. In an interview, Johnson said the 287(g) program was a critical law enforcement tool. “I did it to protect my citizens,” he said.
Last year, under Trump, ICE again partnered with Johnson, this time through the 287(g) spinoff program that allows local officers to make arrests and serve warrants for ICE in jails.
The Justice Department also sued Joe Arpaio while he was sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. The department settled the case and intervened in a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that the sheriff had violated the rights of Latinos by targeting them in traffic stops and detaining people he suspected were undocumented. A federal judge ruled against Arpaio after two trials and ultimately referred the case to the Justice Department for a criminal contempt investigation.
Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt in 2017; he was pardoned several weeks later by Trump.
Reached by phone, Arpaio said he took full advantage of the 287(g) program, pressing ICE early on for the authority to arrest “illegals” on the street. The federal government terminated his 287(g) agreement in 2011.
“I’ve arrested thousands and thousands of people under that program,” he said. “I would do the same thing all over again. ... I have no regrets.”
The Obama administration in 2012 narrowed the scope of the program, prohibiting local law enforcement officers from stopping individuals who they thought might be noncitizens. Instead, officers could question and detain subjects only after they already had been arrested for other offenses and taken to jail.
The changes were intended to discourage discriminatory policing, but immigration advocates say local officers continue to target immigrants, particularly in traffic stops.
“The same department is deciding who to bring into jail and then who to ask for immigration status,” said Lena Graber, a senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “What 287(g) has done is taught every officer in that jurisdiction that they can potentially get somebody deported merely by bringing them into custody — that’s all you need to do. Once that chain is ignited, the resulting transfer to ICE is almost inevitable.”
Despite the concerns, ICE pushed to expand the program, ramping up the effort days after Trump took office, according to internal emails and documents from ICE obtained by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and shared with The Post.
“Guys…I need this apparently and I know it’s been asked before … how many new [law enforcement agencies] do you expect to express interest in 287g?” ICE’s 287(g) national program manager wrote to colleagues in late January 2017, days after Trump’s inauguration. “Please get this back to me ASAP…They’re putting ridiculous deadlines on mind-reading tasks.”
That February, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly sent a memo to ICE directing the agency to expand the 287(g) program to the “greatest extent practicable.” ICE moved quickly, requesting meetings with sheriffs, sending marketing materials and following up when local agencies did not respond.
Eight months after Trump took office, ICE had a list of several dozen law enforcement agencies interested in the program.
“Ironically, it appears that the harder that various entities attempt to thwart ICE’s attempts to enforce federal law, the more it has only served to improve lines of communication with our law enforcement partners at the state and local level,” an ICE supervisor wrote to the sheriff of Warren County, N.Y., in September 2017.
ICE pressed on. In Florida in 2019, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri helped the agency launch the spinoff program, giving officers authority to serve administrative warrants and make arrests on behalf of ICE in local jails. Dozens of Florida sheriffs signed up.
During Trump’s first year in office, the number of immigrants taken into ICE custody under the 287(g) program averaged more than 680 a month, up from about 300 a month in 2016, according to ICE data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
The number continued to rise to about 860 a month in the first half of 2018, the last period for which data is available.
Experts say that ICE has released limited and unreliable data over the years and that the numbers are likely to be an undercount. The agency does not publicly release case data, including the names of people detained and the reasons they were held.
ICE has not publicly disclosed the total number of immigrants deported under the program and did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for case information submitted by The Post 18 months ago. The agency previously reported that 400,000 “removable aliens” were identified under 287(g) from 2006 to 2015.
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Thank President Trump’
Some of the sheriffs who helped fuel the growth of the program under Trump had for years made bombastic remarks about immigrants in speeches, at rallies and in posts on social media.
Tom Hodgson, the sheriff of Bristol County, Mass., whose 287(g) agreement was terminated in May, spoke at an event in Washington in 2013 where he denounced immigration enforcement under the Obama administration.
“Illegal immigrants are creating public health hazards, public safety concerns, living in homes, one-room apartments with three families, taking mattresses off the streets that are infested with bedbugs, filling our emergency rooms for lack of a better care and costing the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars,” Hodgson said.
In an interview with The Post, the sheriff said his statement showed compassion for impoverished people. He added that his 287(g) program drew high marks in a federal audit last year and that the termination of the partnership was unfair and dangerous.
“Anybody that attempts to break up that partnership is basically saying we don’t want you to be able to identify people who are going to potentially hurt people in your communities,” Hodgson said.
In Butler County, Ohio, Sheriff Richard Jones warned employers in a tweet in early 2017 not to hire “illegals” and called on ICE — in a letter posted on the sheriff’s office website — to raid and shut down businesses that failed to comply.
“287(g) — it’s on the way,” wrote Jones, whose agency became an ICE partner in 2008. “If you hire illegals, the rest of us are not going to pay any longer. Thank President Trump.”
Jones told The Post that he stands by his message and that he voluntarily terminated his 287(g) agreement earlier this year after the Biden administration placed limits on deportations.
The sheriffs found support at FAIR and from within the Trump administration. At FAIR’s 2018 conference in Washington, called “Hold Their Feet to the Fire,” Louderback, the sheriff in Jackson County, Tex., pushed for the expansion of the program at a roundtable discussion with Pence.
Bob Dane, FAIR’s executive director, said in a statement that the group believes immigration laws and policies should prioritize national security, public safety and U.S. economic interests.
He said the group supports the 287(g) program because it prevents the release of criminals back into communities. “State and local officers cooperate with federal law enforcement officials in every other area — why should immigration enforcement be any different?” he said.
FAIR, Dane said, “believes in respecting the basic human rights and the dignity of all involved. As such, FAIR opposes policies based on favoritism toward, or discrimination against, any person based on race, color, religion or gender.”
‘We’re human beings’
Undocumented immigrants say the program has changed the way they work and live.
In Hall County, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, families say they use social media to warn of Friday-night traffic stops near their homes and pool money to help neighbors who have been arrested and then detained in the county jail.
TRAC data shows that the number of immigrants taken into ICE custody in Hall County in 2017 averaged 40 per month, nearly quadruple the monthly number in 2016. The monthly average dipped in the first five months of 2018 to about 26.
In January, a leak of liquid nitrogen at a poultry processing plant in the county seat of Gainesville killed six people. Immigration groups said that several of the victims were undocumented and that survivors, also undocumented, were afraid to seek medical help or assist in the investigation because they feared being identified and detained by sheriff’s deputies.
On a spring afternoon, six crosses memorialized the dead on a grassy area in front of the plant. Nearby, in a rented house shared with others, an undocumented immigrant who lost part of a finger in a machine while working an $11-an-hour job at a different food processing plant waited for a ride to meet his family for dinner.
He said he came to the United States from Mexico when he was 13 and has since worked as a dishwasher, a construction worker and a landscaper. What he really wants to do, he said, is repair cars, even though he fears as someone without immigration papers that he will be pulled over and detained if he’s caught driving one.
“We’re human beings, and we have needs like everybody else,” he said. “I want to have a small house. … I want a family. I want a girl. The moment I put the keys in the engine, I’m risking not seeing my mama anymore. It’s over. I will be sent to the country I was running from.”
Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch declined an interview but said in a statement that the program, in place in the county since 2008, has been an “avenue to remove known criminal elements from our community.” Hall County declined to provide data on how many people have been deported under the program, referring questions to ICE.
Other sheriffs, including in nearby Cobb and Gwinnett counties, ended the partnerships when they took office, saying they wanted to rebuild trust with immigrant communities. In South Carolina, Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano cut ties with ICE after taking over in January.
“Officers would target people that were Hispanic and Latinx from the community,” she said. “They were brought in … regardless of the charge. It wasn’t just violent crime — it was anything. Charleston County was being complicit with racial profiling in a community that already feared the police.”
In North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry L. McFadden terminated the partnership when he took office in 2018; he went to a bakery owned by a Latino family on his first day on the job and sliced into a cake decorated with a red circle and a slash through “287(g).” In Wake County, N.C., that year, newly elected Sheriff Gerald M. Baker also announced an end to the program.
“Being a person of color, I understand what it’s like … in communities looking for a better life, looking for equality and justice and everything else just like anyone else,” Baker said in an interview. “The same Constitution that applies to some is supposed to apply to all.”
ICE has reported that it has strengthened training for local officers and deployed more supervisors in the field. “Racial profiling is simply not something that will be tolerated,” the agency says on its website.
In its statement to The Post, the agency said local officers or departments will be dropped from the program if proof of racial profiling is uncovered.
A spokesperson for Biden did not respond to a request for comment.
“The Biden administration is walking back its campaign promise to aggressively limit 287(g) agreements,” said ACLU deputy legal director Cecillia Wang, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit against Arpaio. “Years ago, the Obama administration found serious civil rights violations with these entanglements between local law enforcement and ICE. I’m surprised it is still an issue.”
In Frederick County, Jenkins has remained an unabashed and steadfast partner to ICE.
A Republican elected as sheriff in 2006, he signed on to the 287(g) program two years later and quickly gained prominence as a vocal critic of U.S. immigration policy. At a raucous 2009 rally dubbed “Take America Back,” Jenkins declared before a cheering crowd, “If they’re not in this country legally, you have to go.”
He has regularly worked with FAIR, speaking at events, participating in messaging campaigns and doing interviews with the news media, according to email exchanges obtained from the sheriff’s department by The Post through a public records request.
He also provided FAIR with information about people the group suspected may have been in the country illegally, the emails show.
In April 2016, Susan Tully, the national field director at FAIR, emailed Jenkins about two Maryland men charged with kidnapping and rape. “Can you find out if these people were here illegally, were they unaccompanied minors, anything???” she wrote.
The sheriff responded three minutes later: “I’ll see what I can find out and let you know.”
Ten days later, Jenkins wrote again. “Susan, found out they are illegals, however, no previous encounters with ICE…Gang affiliations unknown right now.”
In 2017, Jenkins emailed Tully about two 14-year-old undocumented immigrants jailed on murder and assault charges who were alleged members of the MS-13 gang.
Tully responded: “Can I share this information or not?”
“Hell yes,” Jenkins replied. “They’re in my jail.”
When Jenkins was reelected sheriff in 2018, Dane, FAIR’s executive director sent a congratulatory email, writing, “You’re one of the those true heroes who are willing to run toward the fire.”
The sheriff responded: “Thanks my friend, feel like Custer at the Big Horn some days.”
Jenkins also exchanged emails with John Zadrozny, a staff member of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Trump who went on to become a top official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In one email, Jenkins referred to a visit by Trump’s senior policy staff to the detention center in Frederick County; in another, he offered arguments supporting Trump’s bid to end protections for those known as “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States when they were children.
“I say rip the band aid off and...market this through the prism of public safety,” he wrote.
In a third email, Jenkins said he had been invited to Camp David to meet with “POTUS for a courtesy photo op.”
“It would be nice upon meeting if he knew my strong national profile on enforcing immigration laws,” Jenkins wrote.
Neither Tully nor Zadrozny responded to a request for comment.
In an interview, Jenkins said he has regularly communicated with different groups and constituents, including those who share his views on immigration. He added that he supports FAIR’s mission.
“I am very comfortable working with that group,” he said. “I make no secret about it whatsoever...I am not different than any other elected official who has a belief or an ideology, a strong one,” he said. “... I know who I am. I’m comfortable in my beliefs and decisions.”
The sheriff’s public comments, however, raised concerns at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at Homeland Security, which objected to the renewal of his 287(g) agreement in 2016. The office said Jenkins had made statements that placed the program “in a bad light,” according to an internal ICE email. The email did not describe specific statements.
Despite the concern, ICE renewed the agreement with Jenkins.
Since 2008, about one-third of the 1,751 immigrants detained in Frederick County under 287(g) were arrested for lower-level offenses, including traffic violations and misdemeanors, according to the sheriff’s office. The office said the rest were brought in for higher-level crimes, including murder, assault, domestic violence and gang activity.
Jenkins pointed to an arrest in April of a man charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse of a minor who was detained by ICE and then transferred into custody under the 287(g) program.
The office declined to provide the names of detainees but said the “vast majority” probably were deported by ICE.
“I have never targeted any immigrant or immigration group,” Jenkins said. “I am a lawman. I am a sheriff.”
In the past 18 months, the county paid a total of $725,000 to settle two high-profile lawsuits with undocumented Hispanic women. One was detained by Jenkins’ deputies while she was eating a sandwich on the curb behind the food co-op where she worked as a dishwasher; the other was stopped, her grandchildren in tow, on her way to buy laundry detergent. Neither had a criminal background, and both were later released.
Jenkins defended his agency in the first case, saying the deputies properly followed procedures. In the second case, he wrote a letter of apology, telling the grandmother that he was sorry for “any fear” his deputies had caused.
Maj. Michael Cronise, the assistant warden at the county detention center who helps oversee the 287(g) program, said that 60 percent of the undocumented immigrants brought in over the years had prior encounters with law enforcement or immigration authorities.
“If we can save one kid from being raped, one person from being killed, to me, the program was worth it,” Cronise said. “I can face God and say, ‘You know what? I did what I thought was right.’ ”
Muller, Beals and Holland are recent graduates of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and former fellows of the Medill Investigative Lab.
Alice Crites and Nate Jones contributed to this report, along with, from the Medill Investigative Lab, Yilun Cheng, Daisy Conant, Ashley Capoot, Kira Leadholm, Rachel Baldauf, Michael Murney, Valli Perera, Cadence Quaranta, Emmanuel Kizito, Jacquelyne Germain, Diamond Palmer, Irene Chang, Imani Sumbi and Shawn Mulcahy.