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Lone New York Sheriff Signs Up to Aid Immigration Crackdown

Issued: 2018-03-20

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By Liz Robbins

TROY, N.Y. — Here in the birthplace of “Uncle Sam,” a former steel town built by Irish and Italian arrivals, the local sheriff has embraced a federal program designed to catch undocumented immigrants in county jails.

His decision to do so — a first for New York State — in a jail that houses relatively few foreign-born inmates has outraged immigration activists, Democratic lawmakers and, notably, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose Albany statehouse office is in Troy’s backyard.

In January, the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Office became one of only 75 in the country to sign an agreement allowing corrections officers to perform the functions of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, as part of a program known as 287(g). The number of jurisdictions taking part has more than doubled since President Trump promoted the program in an executive order in January 2017.

The elected sheriff, Patrick Russo, a Republican with 43 years in local law enforcement, has thus inserted his mostly rural county 150 miles north of New York City into the national immigration debate.

“State police agencies do not and will not engage in such activity, and we are troubled that one local sheriff in the state has decided to participate,” said Alphonso David, the chief counsel to Governor Cuomo, whose office sits six miles south of Troy. The agreement, he said, is “contrary to the public policy and values of our state.”

The program in Rensselaer County has yet to start. Under it, ICE will train two staff corrections officers to identify, interrogate, and turn over inmates for being in the country illegally — including some who may still be awaiting trial on criminal charges. The officers will still be subject to ICE oversight.

Governor Cuomo and activists warned that 287(g) undermines trust between immigrants and law enforcement and makes immigrants less likely to report crimes, the reason many police chiefs across the country cite for not participating.

In an interview, the sheriff said that he was unaware of Rensselaer’s unique status in the state.

“I was kind of surprised when I heard that,” Mr. Russo, 65, said from the sprawling county jail complex on the banks of the Hudson River in South Troy. “Because, to me, this is another tool in the toolbox and I am allowed to reach into the toolbox to make the county safer.”

A spokesman for ICE applauded the decision. “The partnerships with local law enforcement are invaluable force multipliers for ICE in the place we can be most effective in the fight to enhance public safety — local jails,” said the spokesman, Khaalid Walls.

Census statistics from 2016 show only about 5 percent of residents are foreign-born in the county (a figure that may not count undocumented immigrants), and most reside in Troy, the county seat.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t see a big immigrant population here who would be affected,” Sheriff Russo said.

While there could be some small financial benefit for the county, since ICE would pay the jail for any detainees, Sheriff Russo said his primary reason for taking part was to ensure that the jail did not release dangerous criminals back into the community.

He cited a 2016 double homicide of two residents who were Mexican citizens in North Troy. The four people charged were also Mexican nationals, three of whom are in the Rensselaer jail now.

In the county’s application to take part in the program, it listed the top five crimes committed by foreign-born individuals as petit larceny, criminal mischief, criminal possession of a controlled substance and of a weapon, and vehicle offenses.

Today, Troy is home to Lebanese and Moroccan cafes, as well as the Korean restaurant Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen where the kitchen staff is made up of refugees from Burma, Afghanistan, South Sudan and other places. The 27-year-old owner, Jinah Kim, a leader in the nascent immigrant activist movement here, offers English classes for them after lunch service.

The city’s economy revolves around Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, technology start-ups and incubators, and it is represented by six legislators, all Democrats; the hill towns swung the county to President Trump.

Patriotism is packaged in Troy, with signs and murals reminding people of its most famous resident: Samuel Wilson, who boxed meat for the United States Army during the War of 1812. As the Congressionally approved story goes, he stamped his initials on the crates, which soldiers jokingly said came from “Uncle Sam.”

The 287(g) program comes from Uncle Sam, too. It refers to a section of a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton.

“There’s a lot of rumors out there that we are going to go out and do sweeps,” Mr. Russo said. “The agreement doesn’t allow us to do that.”

But activists and lawmakers are concerned that the sheriff’s seal of approval will embolden patrol officers to act, informally, as immigration agents, too.

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