A sheriff’s dilemma in the face of Trump’s immigration agenda

How the controversy over ‘sanctuary cities’ is playing out in the rural West.


This story is the second in a series that examines how a rural Colorado community is grappling with the uncertainties around immigration. Read the first story here.

Twice on a recent Friday morning, Lucia Gaspar had to disappoint her 9-year-old son, Erick. The first time was when he asked if he could play a videogame. Though there was no school that day because of the Easter holiday, the usual household rules still applied: no electronics before noon. The second — and more serious — disappointment came just a few minutes later, when I asked Erick what he had planned for the summer. Erick, a fourth-grader who loves reading, soccer and the solar system, had been excited about a planned family vacation to Disneyland.

“I want to go on the rides!” he said.

But now things had changed, and there would be no trip to Southern California.

For over a year, Lucia and her husband, Javier, had been saving up to take their three children — Erick, 8-year-old Alexandra and Anna, 7 — to the famous amusement park. Now, however, the parents felt it was too risky to drive so far from their home in Alamosa, Colorado. Born into an Indigenous Mayan family in Guatemala, Lucia came to the U.S. as an 8-year-old, with her single mother and four siblings. After 13 years spent living here without documents, she received some protection through a program created by then-President Barack Obama — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — which offered temporary legal status and work permits to young undocumented immigrants who met certain criteria. But her spouse, Javier, has no such protection: He came from Mexico alone at 14 to work and was unable to finish high school, so he was ineligible for DACA.

“What if we got pulled over?” Lucia worried. For her family, a broken headlight or a minor speeding ticket could have life-altering consequences, if police discovered that Javier was undocumented or if her DACA status changed. Erick understood: The president was “sending people back where they came from if they don’t have papers.” This made him mad, he said. “Because he might send back my parents.” 

Located in the sprawling farmland of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, five hours away from Denver, the closest major city, Alamosa can feel about as far removed from D.C. politics as you can get. But not when it comes to immigration enforcement: More than half of the town’s 15,000 people are Hispanic, many of them immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala who now find themselves in the crosshairs of the government’s immigration crackdown.

It wasn’t just immigrants and their families who felt targeted. Since the 2016 election, the Trump administration has ramped up pressure on local law enforcement across the country into becoming a “deportation force.” From signaling its intention to aggressively promote the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to question people about their immigration status, to withholding federal grants from so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, the White House has made it clear that it aims to enlist local police and county sheriffs in its war against unauthorized immigration. While some law enforcement officials support the administration’s efforts, others feel caught between these new demands and their legal and ethical ramifications.

Erick Esquivel-Gaspar records the books he has read before playing after school.
Corey Robinson

In late January, Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson found himself facing just such a dilemma: Daniel Moreno Rojo, an 18-year-old local student, had been arrested on four charges and booked into the county jail for entering Alamosa High School after being suspended for getting into a fight. Now, an ICE agent wanted to detain Moreno, who had allegedly overstayed his visa and no longer had the proper documentation to remain in the U.S.

“Let us know when you’re going to release him,” the agent told Jackson. The request made Jackson uncomfortable. The following day, Moreno would be released on bond, but ICE wanted the sheriff to hold on to the young man until agents got there. That put Jackson in an awkward position: The Fourth Amendment prohibits holding people behind bars without a warrant signed by a judge. In the end, the sheriff agreed to call the local ICE office as soon as the court issued the bond for Moreno’s release, but he did so with a condition: “I’m not going to hold him outside any reasonable length for you.” 

Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson is a Democrat, but he leans to the right when it comes to border security.
Corey Robinson

Jackson acknowledges that he is an “unusual” county sheriff. Unlike most of his rural Western counterparts, he is a Democrat, with progressive views on issues like marijuana for recreational use; a coffee mug on his desk reads “Hug a Thug.” But when it comes to border security, he leans to the right. He would like Trump to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, “mainly to stop all this heroin from coming up,” he told me, and to “keep out the criminals, the gangs, this MS-13” — the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang.

As is standard practice, Jackson gives ICE agents access to the jail’s inmate roster and complies with their requests for information, allowing them to identify and detain people they suspect of living in the U.S. without documents. But Jackson has his limits, and fulfilling requests, or “detainers,” to hold immigrants behind bars for up to two extra days — regardless of whether that person is eventually convicted of a crime — is one of them. 

ICE detainer requests peaked six years ago, and then rose again sharply in the early days of the Trump administration. In recent years, the practice has entangled a growing number of local sheriffs in court battles over whether detainer requests violate the fundamental principles that protect everyone — citizens and noncitizens alike — from being jailed without sufficient justification. According to Katherine Schroeder, the legal counsel for the County Sheriffs of Colorado, Colorado county attorneys advise sheriffs to avoid possible legal trouble by not honoring ICE detainers. 

“There are a lot of things a sheriff can do to work with ICE, but attorneys have made it clear that under the current system it would be unconstitutional for a sheriff to hold someone if a court has granted that person release,” said Schroeder. 

This is why Jackson was reluctant to comply with ICE’s request to keep Moreno in jail. But the sheriff was also concerned that by collaborating too closely with ICE, he risks eroding the trust his department has built with Alamosa’s immigrant community. The sheriff often reaches out to Francisco Lucas, a local Indigenous Mayan from Guatemala, for instance, whenever he needs a translator for the Q'anjob'al language. Recently, Lucas teamed up with one of the sheriff’s deputies to offer free driving lessons for local Spanish-speakers.

Jackson believes that those kinds of positive efforts have a much greater benefit for public safety, as research has shown that merging local law enforcement with federal immigration enforcement can have a chilling effect on crime reporting in immigrant communities. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, observed in the LA Times last year that “chiefs are afraid that such efforts will have the unintended consequence of actually increasing crime and making their communities less safe.”

Many Western sheriffs and police chiefs agree. Tom Green, for example, the deputy sheriff of Washoe County, Nevada, does not enforce detainers. Still, he allows ICE access to his jail roster and contracts with ICE to house its detainees in the local jail. As a result, Green often feels the need to reassure Reno’s Hispanic community. “What I tell people is our staff aren’t trained to investigate their citizenship status,” he told me.

Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson walks through the county jail where he's had to make difficult decisions about notifying ICE when particular inmates were released.
Corey Robinson

That kind of fear was on Jackson’s mind back in January, when he dealt with Moreno’s case. As promised, the sheriff notified ICE when Moreno was released from jail, but afterward he worried about how Alamosa’s immigrant community would interpret his action. Hoping to clarify the limits of his involvement with ICE, he released a position paper published by the County Sheriffs of Colorado: “Sheriffs have informed ICE that in order to comply with the Fourth Amendment, we must get judicially approved holds or warrants,” the document read. “However, at this time, ICE chooses not to do this. We continue to cooperate with federal immigration officials, but we cannot violate the Constitution in the name of convenience.”

Jackson never found out what happened to Moreno, but the case still troubles him. His job is to uphold both federal and state laws, but sometimes that leaves him in an ethical quandary. After 34 years in law enforcement in a rural community with few resources, helping deport people like Moreno — a teenager who, like so many teenagers, showed a few moments of poor judgment — is not among his public safety priorities. The sheriff recalled seeing Moreno sitting behind the glass walls inside the jail: “You could tell he was just a frightened high school kid,” he said.

“This is a small community. There’s a lot of people from Guatemala here, and a lot of these kids are our DACA kids,” Jackson said. He would like to have more discretion in how he handles these cases, but he knows that in today’s political climate, he could lose his job.

“I don’t want to send members of our community back to their home country,” he said. “I’m not on board with that.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN. She writes from Paonia, Colorado.

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