Stan Sallee probably didn’t think much about it when he was elected District 1 Tulsa County commissioner last year, but his victory put him front and center in the debate over whether the county should assist the federal government in enforcing immigration laws.
That decision comes down to a vote of the three-member Board of County Commissioners, and if history is any indication, Sallee would be the swing vote.
Last June — long before he took office — commissioners voted 2-1 to continue participating in the 287(g) program. The swing vote that day was former District 1 County Commissioner John Smaligo, who signed the memorandum of understanding on behalf of the commission.
Also voting “yes” was District 3 Commissioner Ron Peters. District 2 Commissioner Karen Keith cast the lone vote in opposition.
The Sheriff’s Office is one of dozens of local law enforcement agencies participating in the 287(g) program, which uses local law enforcement to identify and process undocumented residents for deportation proceedings.
The Sheriff’s Office has six employees certified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to participate in the program.
Sheriff Vic Regalado recently signed a 12-month extension of the MOU that did not require BOCC approval. But opponents of the program continue to call for commissioners to end it.
Nearly 20 area residents told commissioners last week that 287(g) is creating mistrust of local law enforcement and leading to individuals being deported for minor offenses.
The MOU makes clear that the agreement could be ended at the request of either party.
“During the MOU’s effective period, either party, upon written notice to the other party, may terminate or suspend the MOU at any time,” the agreement states.
Don’t expect action on the issue soon. Commissioners have no plans to vote on the MOU, and Sallee says he’s still examining the program to determine whether he should support it or not.
“I owe it to both sides,” he said. “I certainly support law enforcement. I support our sheriff. He’s done a great job, I feel like, managing our jail … so I have a lot of confidence in him.
“But when we have concerns from throughout the county, we’ve got to look at those as well.”
Sallee said he is “100 percent, totally” against racial profiling and has yet to be convinced that it is happening.
“If I felt that (racial profiling) is happening … I would not support it whatsoever,” he said.
On the plus side, Sallee said, the program helps with public safety, which is an important consideration.
Another issue to be considered is the separate agreement the Sheriff’s Office has with ICE to hold inmates from around the country in the county jail. Last fiscal year alone, the agreement brought in $4.7 million, according to county records.
“If that is not here, then where is the BOCC or the county going to come up with those funds?” Sallee said. “And what are they going to be willing to cut, and what department are they going to cut from?”
Peters said he struggles with the issue and has spoken with several opponents of the program to try to find a middle ground.
“The big thing is, they’re making it sound like we’re just seeing that you are dark skinned and we’re pulling you over and arresting you so we can deport you,” the commissioner said. “That’s not going on.”
Peters has reviewed arrest data at the jail — including cases brought to his attention by advocates for eliminating the 287(g) — to try to determine whether undocumented immigrants are being arrested on minor charges and deported.
“You might be able to find some in there who got a trivial arrest, but for the most part, we’re not looking at good folks,” Peters said.
The county commissioner said he fears that pulling out of the 287(g) program could effectively make Tulsa a sanctuary city, “and I don’t think that is what a majority of people in Tulsa want.”
With the 287(g) program, Peters said, local law enforcement has a process in place by which to notify the federal government when undocumented immigrants facing serious charges have been apprehended
“So if we don’t have this program, we’re not calling ICE,” Peters said. “So I am a foreign-born national, I’m here illegally, I get arrested on DUI or domestic assault and battery, we don’t make that call, soon as your charge is resolved, you’re back out in the community.”
Critics of the 287(g) program note that state law already requires that jails make a reasonable effort to determine the citizenship status of persons charged with a felony or with driving under the influence and that if lawful immigration status cannot be verified, the jail is to notify the Department of Homeland Security.
Keith said she is philosophically opposed to local participation in either of the ICE programs.
“Countless local agencies that engage with the Hispanic populations report that individuals who may need the help of law enforcement are afraid to call in,” Keith said. “That is despite valiant efforts by Sheriff Regalado to reassure that population that it is safe to call his agency without fear of deportation.”
She added: “In addition to the potential impacts (of the ICE programs) on individuals, I don’t like the perception that as a county we are participating in these programs.”