Portage County Sheriff’s Office helps ICE deport unauthorized immigrants

David Doak, Portage County Sheriff since January 2009, sits in his office at the Portage County Justice Center in Ravenna on Sept. 14, 2017. 

Ben Orner

When voters in Kent turned down a “sanctuary city” ballot issue in the November election, it meant any ties between the city jail and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would remain.

But Kent is not where ICE, the federal agency that deals with unauthorized immigrants and most notably deports them, is focused in Portage County. That would be the Portage County Jail in Ravenna.

Records released by ICE indicate the agency has asked the Portage County Sheriff’s Office to hand over unauthorized immigrants more than 50 times in the past eight years. And though the sheriff’s office has no official policies, and neither the sheriff nor the jail administrator can remember a single case, the sheriff’s office is compliant with the Trump administration’s nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration.

Statewide data

When a local law enforcement agency (LEA), such as a county sheriff’s office, arrests someone, his or her fingerprints and information is sent to three databases: the LEA’s, the FBI’s and ICE’s. If the person’s information matches ICE’s records, he or she is likely an unauthorized immigrant.

ICE will then send the LEA an I-247 form, commonly known as a “detainer request.” It asks the LEA to hold the person for an additional 48 hours so ICE can pick them up and begin the deportation process. Even though most LEAs comply with ICE detainers, it is not required by law. LEAs that do not comply are referred to as sanctuaries.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University keeps track of detainer requests nationwide. Through a hard-fought series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and court victories, TRAC has compiled a database of every ICE detainer received by law enforcement agencies across the nation.

TRAC’s records for Ohio are current through July 2017 and go back to November 2002. Since then, ICE requested the transfer of 17,696 unauthorized immigrants from county jails in 75 of Ohio’s 88 counties.

The top county for detainers, Franklin, is Ohio’s most populous with more than 1.2 million residents. When adjusting for each county’s population, Franklin is still first for detainers, but that is where the correlation ends.

The Clark County Jail, located in Ohio’s 21st most populous county, received the second-most detainers. Fayette County, Ohio’s 74th-most populous county with just 29,000 residents, received the third-most detainers.

Some heavily populated counties like Cuyahoga (2nd), Summit (4th), and Lucas (6th) received just the 59th, 55th and 58th most detainers, respectively.

Portage County

TRAC’s records show the Portage County Jail, which can hold up to 220 people, received 56 detainer requests from May 2009 to January 2017. The busiest year was 2012 when the jail received 27.

ICE withheld most information about the detainers and the immigrants named in the detainer. The agency released only limited information, which included the person’s gender and citizenship, and whether some detainers were refused.

ICE’s records confirm the sheriff’s office did not refuse the detainer in at least 30 of the 56 cases. According to TRAC, that does not necessarily mean ICE took custody of those detainees. Fifty-four of the detainees were male and two were female. Thirty-four were originally from Mexico, while the rest hailed from nine other countries.

Sheriff unaware

Portage County Sheriff David Doak and jail administrator Danny Burns cannot recall the sheriff’s office or jail receiving any detainers from ICE. Burns said he has never seen an ICE detainer request in his more than two years working at the jail. In response to a public records request, Doak responded that he was “not familiar with” the I-247 form.

“If I walked back there (to the jail) and laid (an I-247 form) down in front of all of the (corrections officers) back there and said ‘What’s this form?,’” Doak said, “they’d go, ‘I don’t know what that is.’”

Doak and Burns said the 56 detainers since 2009 sounded like a lot, but neither disagreed with the number. Doak said if the jail received a detainer from ICE, “we would comply with that.” Burns agreed.

KentWired asked to see any ICE detainers the Portage County Jail received, but Doak and Burns said detainee records cannot be pulled up in the jail’s system without entering an individual’s name. To get a sample of detainee names, KentWired filed a FOIA request with ICE for detainers sent to the jail in 2016. ICE told KentWired it could only grant the request for the individuals whose names are on the forms.

 ICE not always cooperative

Sheriff Doak only remembers a couple of times his office has dealt with unauthorized immigrants, and neither involved detainers. The first was shortly after he took office in 2009.

“We had a deputy that stopped a van,” Doak said. “They were all immigrants in the van. No paperwork, didn’t speak English. They had to bring an interpreter in to even talk to them.”

The sheriff’s office immediately contacted ICE, but the federal agency did not follow through with its promise to pick up the immigrants.

“Four or five days went by; we had not charged them with anything except being in the country without paperwork,” Doak said, “We let them go because (ICE) just wouldn’t come and pick them up. In the last conversation we had with them, they said they weren’t that interested in it.”

Doak said whenever his deputies arrest someone who they discover is in the country illegally, they immediately contact ICE.

Though agencies initiate contact with ICE less frequently than they receive  detainers, complying with ICE is standard for sheriff’s offices statewide. Bob Cornwell, the executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association, said it is common practice for county jails in Ohio to hand over unauthorized immigrants to ICE.

“Policies have remained fairly consistent over the years,” he said.

A shift in policy

The Portage County Sheriff’s Office’s interactions with unauthorized immigrants and ICE are not based in any official policy, because the sheriff’s office has none. Part of the reason why is the rural nature of Portage County and how rarely the sheriff’s office said it interacts with unauthorized immigrants and ICE.

Doak expects that to change with President Trump in the White House.

“I can almost assure you if we picked someone up now and called ICE,” Doak said, “they would probably come and get them without delay.”

Doak expects ICE to cooperate more with local law enforcement, especially in more rural areas like Portage County.

“I think that they know, because of the public opinion and political controversy this has stirred up, they’re going to have to work with the locals,” Doak said. “If they don’t, they’re not going to get anywhere.”

Expecting ICE to knock on the door more frequently means the sheriff’s office will look at forming official policies.

“Since this crackdown on the national level with it, and a lot of this talk about sanctuary cities,” Doak said, “we are going to take a look at what policies we have and how we’re going to handle that now.”

The sheriff’s office is in the early stages of developing concrete policies, but things it will look at include whether to hand over unauthorized immigrants who are witnesses of crimes and whether jail employees should begin to track the citizenship status of its inmates.

“We would be taking a look at specifically the federal sections of the law that cover it. Perhaps spell those out in it,” he said. “Secondly, we would be taking a little bit different view on the booking process, how we interview people when they’re booked in – background information and that sort of thing.”

The Trump effect

One byproduct of illegal immigration Doak sees firsthand is drug trafficking, particularly coming across the Mexican border with the United States.

“It’s caused jail overcrowding, deaths, the list could go on,” he said. “(Drugs have) been coming across the border for years, and law enforcement has taken a pretty tough stand.”

Doak thinks that is a major part of President Trump’s emphasis on illegal immigration.

“I suspect that Trump took issue with that politically,” he said. “He made a stand with that, and once he committed to it he was kind of obligated to follow through. And we’re beginning to see the extent of that.”

The extent of the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration translates into ICE sending more detainers to law enforcement agencies nationwide. In Trump’s first six full months in office, TRAC’s data shows ICE sent 38 percent more detainers nationwide and 37 percent more detainers in Ohio, compared to President Barack Obama’s last six months.

For Doak, a Democrat, the impact of drug trafficking on law enforcement, opioid addiction and Portage County is enough to justify full cooperation with ICE.

“What goes on with border crossing and drugs coming in has been a concern to law enforcement for years,” he said. “And it’s been a big part of us being on the backside of the power curve with the drug trafficking, and certainly the opioids, cocaine, meth and what have you.”

Not all unauthorized immigrants are involved in drug trafficking, however, nor did they illegally cross the Mexican border. According to the Center for Migration Studies, since 2007, most unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. overstayed a visa.

Just 140,000 unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2013 were people who crossed the southern border, compared to the 250,000 who overstayed visas.

Regardless, Doak said people here illegally know what could happen if their citizenship status is discovered.

“If I have a visa and I’m here for whatever reason there is on the visa, I should know that date when the visa expires,” he said. “And I’m taking a chance any time after that when I don’t go and renew that. It’s like a drivers license. If you have a driver’s license and it’s expired and you get stopped, is that my fault or is that your fault?”

Personal feelings, professional priorities

While Doak acknowledges his duty to enforce the law, he is sympathetic when he talks about the families of the immigrants handed over to ICE for deportation.

“I just morally think that it’s wrong to split families up, take children or parents and deport them and split the family up,” he said. “On the other hand, those folks know that when they cross the border illegally, there’s consequences to that, and they have to take a little bit of ownership in that.”

Doak’s job as a law enforcement officer does not always abide with his personal perspectives. 

“I’m not really in favor of deporting these people,” Doak said, “but oftentimes my personal opinion cannot get in the way of what I’m sworn to do as a sheriff.”

“I can’t pick and choose what laws I’m going to enforce,” he stressed. “I’m not in a position as the sheriff where I can say, ‘well, I don’t like that law; I’m going to tell the deputies we don’t need to enforce that.’”

Ultimately, Doak’s badge sits above his heart, both literally and figuratively.

“I’m very hesitant for a lot of reasons to displace families,” he said. “But at the same time, I’ve taken an oath to enforce the law.”

As the Trump administration increases its crackdown on illegal immigration and the Portage County Sheriff’s Office tries to keep up, one thing is clear: If an unauthorized immigrant is taken into custody by a Portage County Sheriff’s deputy or is sitting in a cell at the county jail, their days in the U.S. are likely numbered.

“If they were here illegally,” Doak said, “we would probably be contacting ICE.”

Ben Orner is the enterprise producer for KentWired. Contact him at [email protected].