A bill making its way through the Ulster County Legislature would set new policy guidelines with the goal of restricting cooperation between county officials — including law enforcement — and immigration authorities. Opponents of the legislation, including Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum, say the guidelines are both unnecessary and a clear overreach of legislative authority.
The bill, titled “Creating a policy to maintain a safe, inclusive government and ensure the protection, order, conduct, safety, health and well-being of all persons in Ulster County,” was submitted by New Paltz Democrat Hector Rodriguez and co-sponsored by Kingston Democrat Jennifer Schwartz Berky.
Rodriguez said he drafted the law in response to stepped-up immigration enforcement under the administration of President Donald Trump. Trump kicked off his campaign by characterizing illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and drug dealers and vowed to build a wall to keep them out. During his campaign he also touted the idea of a “deportation force” charged with removing an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Neither the wall nor the mass roundups have gotten off the ground, but the rhetoric has spread fear in immigrant communities locally and nationwide. Earlier this year, a social media hoax about impending immigration raids swept the Hudson Valley, leading many undocumented residents to skip work, keep kids home from school and avoid public places.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, on orders from Washington, have grown more aggressive when it comes to deporting people who are eligible for removal due to criminal convictions but have been allowed to remain in the country because their crimes were considered minor and their conduct otherwise lawful. The new policy ensnared one of Rodriguez’s constituents, New Paltz resident Joel Guerrero. Guerrero a green card holder has been held in a ICE detention facility since March when he showed up for a routine interview with the agency only to be informed that he would be deported to his native Dominican Republican based on a 2009 marijuana conviction.
“We live in extreme times,” said Rodriguez. “If this is how ICE is operating our response has to be that we are on the side of our community.”
The resulting legislation is based on guidelines issued earlier this year by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which laid out policies that individual jurisdictions could adopt to, Schneiderman said, lawfully limit cooperation with immigration authorities. Schneiderman’s “legal roadmap” is rooted in the Constitution’s 10th Amendment which, the guidelines argue, place immigration enforcement solely with the federal government and forbid the feds from commandeering state or local police resources to carry it out.
Elements from Schneiderman’s guidelines included in the proposed legislation would ban county employees from stopping, questioning or arresting anyone based solely on their suspected immigration status or to comply with an administrative request by ICE to detain an individual based on their immigration status. Such detainer requests would only be honored if accompanied by a judge’s order or when an individual has a prior conviction for a serious crime, is suspected of re-entering the country after a previous removal or is suspected of terrorist activity. The law would also bar county employees from inquiring about immigration status during routine interactions or from sharing information about individuals’ country of origin or immigration status with federal immigration authorities. The law also bans county officials from taking any action to further federal efforts to create a list or database based on race, religion, ethnicity or national origin.
“This is just the legislature providing guidelines to ensure that everybody is treated equally,” said Berky.
I set my own policy, says sheriff
But VanBlarcum said that the legislation is an overreach by county lawmakers onto his turf. VanBlarcum said that the legislature has no authority to set policy for his department and added that many of the policies laid out in the new law are already standard operating procedure. For example, VanBlarcum said, his agency does not hold inmates at the county jail beyond their scheduled release date based on ICE detainer requests. If ICE agents request a meeting with an inmate, the inmate is informed of the request and given the option to decline the interview.
Other aspects of the sheriff’s operation, however, could run afoul of the new law. VanBlarcum said that new admissions to the county jail are asked the country of their birth if it is outside the U.S.
“The only person who can set policy for the sheriff’s office is myself,” said VanBlarcum. “This is a waste of time and effort.”
Legislator T.J. Briggs (D-Ellenville), who heads the county legislature’s law enforcement committee, said he agrees with VanBlarcum’s assessment that it’s not in the legislature’s purview to set policy for the sheriff. Briggs added that he did not see the need for the legislation given that VanBlarcum had already addressed most of the issues. In a brief meeting of the committee last week, with Rodriguez delayed at another committee meeting, lawmakers voted 4-0 to kill the bill.
“If there were a situation where the sheriff was doing immigration sweeps and we had 100 illegal immigrants locked up in the county jail maybe this is something we would look at,” said Briggs. “But that’s not happening.”
Berky and Rodriguez, meanwhile are seeking eight legislators’ signatures on a “petition of discharge” that would move the legislation onto the floor of the legislature despite the committee’s “no” vote. Berky, who was present at the Law Enforcement Committee meeting, said she was disappointed that the committee disposed of the legislation in minutes and that she was not afforded an opportunity to speak. Berky added that committee members should have waited for Rodriguez before taking the vote.
But Briggs noted that Rodriguez’s presence would not have influenced the outcome of the vote and there was no need for debate since all of the committee members present were opposed to the legislation.
“Whether it passes is a different matter,” said Rodriguez. “But all we want is to have a dialogue about this issue.”