GOSHEN — Middle school teacher Naomi Zook sees a change come over her students whenever immigration concerns are in the news.
The Goshen reading instructor was one of three people who spoke out Saturday against a new policy for holding immigrants in the Elkhart County Jail for up to 72 hours on a federal detainer. They told the Elkhart County Council that it’s unnecessary, opens the county to potential liability and would only sour perceptions of law enforcement in the community.
They asked them to rescind the change or suspend it pending public input and review.
Sheriff Jeff Siegel announced the longer hold earlier in the week, which he said was requested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He said he allowed an amendment to the contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to hold no more than two individuals at a time and only up to 24 additional hours on a 48-hour detainer, which keeps them in jail so they can potentially be picked up by ICE.
After hearing the comments Saturday, Siegel and Council President John Letherman said that county officials will have discussions on the policy and may rescind or revise it.
Zook explained that her students are often the sort of kids who are at risk of dropping out and becoming involved in crime, and that their perception of authority is colored by the things they hear around them. She sees their reading scores suffer as well.
“I have been shocked by my students’ attitudes towards law enforcement,” she said. “As statements come out about our sheriffs and our police working with ICE, you can see the attitudes in my classroom change towards authority at school and towards their teachers.”
She said she grew up with a positive perception of law enforcement herself, and that she understands what the sheriff’s department is trying to do. But she also agrees with the assessment of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose Indiana branch criticized Siegel’s decision.
“In the community, it gets blown out as if our sheriffs are out to get us, our police are out to get us,” Zook said. “I agree with the ACLU, that our local enforcement needs to come out of policing whether somebody is undocumented or not. So we can protect our communities, so we can protect our kids, so we can have better relationships with our communities, so we can stop crime at a local level. And I think that’s what the county needs to enforce first.”
Fellow Goshen residents Richard Aguirre and Marilyn Torres also spoke against the policy change. Both were part of efforts to oppose the plan for an immigration detention facility in Elkhart County in 2018.
Torres shared more about the ACLU’s response to the policy, which warned that greater coordination with ICE by local law enforcement would foster more fear and less cooperation among residents. The organization also warned that imprisoning people without due process and often without probable cause or pending charges exposes local governments to the risk and liability of holding a person in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
That’s already happened in many communities, Aguirre noted. He pointed out that the city of Marysville, Washington, recently agreed to pay $85,000 to a Mexican immigrant who was held on detainers twice, despite court orders that he be released.
“ICE has a terrible record of maintaining accurate databases about who is deportable. In many cases, people who have legal status or who are actually U.S. citizens have been detained, because they were supposedly deportable,” he said. “These kinds of false arrests and detentions have led to successful lawsuits against local jurisdictions, and the federal government is not responsible for those kinds of abuses. Local jurisdictions are.”
He later shared a statement from Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Goshen, warning that the county could be on the hook for “significant financial liability” if litigation is filed over civil rights violations.
“The county’s detention contract is just a basis for reimbursement of detention costs. It does not authorize the detention itself,” she said. “Unless ICE personally processes the noncitizen into ICE custody, the person remains unlawfully in Elkhart Sheriff custody.”
Aguirre also told the council that a policy allowing a longer hold is unnecessary because the detainer requested by ICE already excludes weekends and holidays from the 48-hour limit.
He said the policy risks too much, for little benefit.
“Local authorities do not enforce immigration law, they should not be asking about immigration status. And that is happened, and that is happening,” he said. “I’m afraid this new policy will increase negative perceptions among Latinos about the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department. Already there is a high level of distrust and fear among Latinos because of rumors that the Sheriff’s Office is working hand-in-hand with federal immigration authorities. That cannot have been the intent of the new policy, but that is the unfortunate result.”
‘No witch hunt’
In announcing the policy change, Siegel said he doesn’t intend to hold detainees for ICE on a long-term basis and won’t allow the jail to exceed the stated agreement. He also said his officers won’t be actively seeking people based on their immigration status.
“There is no witch hunt,” he said Saturday. “However, once I saw my name in the same sentence with ACLU, I must protect myself, my agency and this county. So in conferring with attorneys, I’m not gonna make any further statements.”
But he did address the chance of reversing the policy change.
“If the county attorney advises, we’ll rescind,” Siegel said. “If not, then we’ll see if we can meet on common ground.”
Letherman indicated some discussions will be held on the policy change and that they’ll try to strike a balance.
Aguirre said after the meeting that he looks forward to a talk with the sheriff. He noted that several people, including Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, have asked for an explanation of the new policy.
Letherman also said he doesn’t believe Latino residents of Elkhart County should fear that law enforcement is after them.
“There is no anti-immigration going on in Elkhart County. We know a huge number of the folks who have made this county successful are Latinos. They work hard, they do a good job,” he said. “People who have businesses here, particularly people that have manufacturing businesses, consistently tell us that without the Latino population, they wouldn’t have a company.”