An on-duty Tompkins County sheriff’s deputy this week called federal immigration authorities to report that a Mexican man was in the U.S. illegally, holding the man at the Sheriff’s Office until agents arrived. The deputy’s actions in a county that passed sanctuary legislation almost two years ago brought swift criticism from several legislators and the sheriff himself.
Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement drove to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office early Wednesday morning and picked up the man, who has not been identified. He is now being held in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, according to Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne.
“I’m not too happy about it, I’ll be quite honest with you,” Osborne, a Democrat who was sworn in as sheriff in December, said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. He said he had already drafted a new policy in response to the deputy’s actions.
Osborne said the deputy responded to a 911 call late on Tuesday night from a cleaning crew. A member of the cleaning crew said a man had entered a closed doctor’s office in the Village of Lansing shortly before midnight and asked to have his blood pressure checked.
When the deputy arrived, the man provided a false name and date of birth and volunteered that he was in the country illegally, Osborne said. At that point, the deputy took the man into custody, called ICE and held him at the Public Safety Building on Warren Road — which houses the jail and Sheriff’s Office — until ICE officers arrived.
“For whatever reason, the deputy felt inclined to reach out to ICE who did respond and picked him up,” Osborne said. “This type of interaction where ICE gets involved is not at all what my Sheriff’s Office is going to be involved with.”
The Tompkins County Legislature passed a resolution in February 2017 restricting when county employees, including sheriff’s deputies, can enforce immigration law or aid federal authorities in doing so.
Prof. Kathleen Bergin, law, who helped draft the legislation, said the deputy’s actions did not violate the statute. That’s because of a federal law that says municipalities cannot prohibit government officials from reporting someone’s immigration status. Bergin added that the deputy was not compelled at any time to call the federal authorities.
“I think it’s a super close call but that no, what the officer did is not a violation of the sanctuary resolution, but he wasn’t required to do that,” Bergin said.
Immigration expert Prof. Stephen Yale-Loehr, law, concurred.
“I agree that it is a close call, but the county resolution explicitly states that nothing in the resolution bars a sheriff’s officer from sending a statement of a person’s immigration status to federal immigration authorities,” Yale-Loehr said in an email.
Anna Kelles, a Democrat who represents the City of Ithaca on the Tompkins County Legislature and who authored the bill, said that while the deputy may not have violated the county resolution, he acted contrary to the legislation’s purpose.
The county resolution, which passed 11 to 2, states that deputies and other Tompkins personnel “shall not provide federal agents with access to an individual in their custody or the use of agency facilities or resources to question or interview such individual if the federal agent’s sole purpose is enforcement of federal immigration law.”
It also says deputies should not perform “the functions of a federal immigration officer” or otherwise engage “in the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
Michael Sigler, a Republican representing parts of the Town of Lansing, was out of town when legislators voted on the resolution but vocally opposed it at the time because he said it asks deputies “to circumvent the nation’s laws.”
“I have issues with current immigration laws, but it’s the U.S. Congress that needs to address those laws and fix them,” he said Thursday. “We don’t make progress toward a fair system by ignoring the laws that a majority of our representatives voted into place.”
Despite the fact that the county law went into effect in early 2017, Osborne said he was surprised to discover this week that there was no Sheriff’s Office policy dictating deputies’ interactions with federal immigration agencies. Since Wednesday, he has been working with the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group, to draft one. The policy, which he shared with The Sun and implemented Thursday, mirrors much of the County Legislature’s resolution. (The new policy is embedded at the bottom of this article.)
Osborne said he also called the coalition to ensure that the detained Mexican man was provided with a lawyer.
“That’s how seriously I’m taking this,” Osborne said, adding that since taking over as sheriff, he has been trying to build a relationship with communities and create an environment in which “people shouldn’t be fearful about calling for help.”
Martha Robertson ’75, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, said she was glad that Osborne acted quickly in instituting a policy in response to the deputy’s actions.
“Some of us were very surprised there wasn’t such a policy in place, but he’s taken quick action to correct that,” said Robertson, a Democrat. “I am confident he’ll make sure that every deputy is fully trained and updated on what to do in such a circumstance in the future.”
No local charges have been or will be filed against the Mexican man who was handed over to ICE, Osborne said. The Sheriff’s Office does not know the man’s real name — only the fake name they say he provided to the deputy — and an ICE spokesman said that without biographical information, he could not confirm if the man was in ICE custody.
Ithaca College Prof. Patricia Rodriguez, a member of the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition steering committee, said the detained man lives in New York City.
Osborne did not identify the deputy who called ICE and said the matter would be handled internally.
“The deputy thought he was doing the right thing at the time but it’s definitely not the way I want these calls handled moving forward,” he said. The president of the union representing Tompkins County sheriff’s deputies did not respond to an email seeking comment.
ICE’s apprehension of the man follows several high-profile arrests of undocumented people in the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County after the municipalities passed separate sanctuary laws in February 2017.
ICE officers arrested a Mexican man in May 2017 in the city’s Northside neighborhood, sparking a large protest in the Commons. In January 2018, ICE confirmed that it arrested two Thai nationals in Ithaca, and a local activist network reported that a third man was arrested by ICE that same month. The Ithaca Police Department said at the time that it had no part in any of the operations.
And in April 2018, ICE arrested a man from Turkey while he was being bailed out of the Tompkins County Jail, the Ithaca Voice reported at the time.
Kelles said she is thankful that Osborne was taking Tuesday’s incident seriously, but added that she is concerned about the effect the deputy’s decision could have on Tompkins County’s undocumented residents.
“We as legislators tried to create an environment where people could feel safe,” she said. “We don’t want people to not trust or not believe in our law enforcement. Law enforcement is here to protect the safety of all human beings in our municipality and if that breaks down, that’s a problem.”