The Freeborn County jail sent some local inmates to other counties to free up space for immigration detainees this summer. Sherburne County is working on a plan to house more inmates two to a cell.
The five Minnesota jails that house immigration detainees have seen those populations grow markedly in 2017 amid the Trump administration’s tighter enforcement. Through August of this year, the five jails together housed an average of 577 immigration inmates per month, after averaging about 360 detainees per month over the past two years. Meanwhile, even as deportations nationally slowed, their pace increased out of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s St. Paul office.
The brisker business with ICE has given a boost to county sheriffs’ offices, which charged the agency more than $7 million this year through August for housing its detainees. That compares with about $3.1 million in the same period in 2015 and $4.9 million in 2016.
“The data is very clear in how much there has been a ramping up in enforcement locally,” said Virgil Wiebe, an immigration law expert at the University of St. Thomas. “This is a very impressive increase.” Besides Freeborn and Sherburne, county jails in Carver, Nobles and Ramsey counties also house ICE detainees. These inmates include immigrants arrested in Minnesota as well as some detained elsewhere in the five-state area covered by ICE’s St. Paul office and, more rarely, in other parts of the country.
The Star Tribune compiled the detainee data through records requests, offering a rare glimpse at local immigration enforcement as speculation rises about the impact of the Trump administration’s policies on Minnesota.
Under federal law, the sheriff’s offices redacted identifying information about inmates, making it impossible to say if the larger ICE detainee populations are in part due to longer jail stays. One county, Nobles, did provide the dates when ICE inmates first arrived. Of the 52 inmates in August, for instance, 29 were booked that month, and 17 in the previous two months. Two had been in the jail since April, and four since 2016.
Twenty-eight left the jail that month, though it is unclear if they were deported, freed on bond, transferred to a different facility or released.
Because ICE on occasion transfers detainees between these five facilities mid-month, adding up the jail numbers could double-count some inmates. A more foolproof measure is the total number of days all ICE detainees spend at the jails each month. That number averaged about 5,100 days a month in 2015 and 7,700 in 2016. Already on the upswing in the Obama administration’s final months, it climbed steadily this year, hitting more than 12,380 days in August.
ICE pointed to a February executive order in which Trump greatly expanded the government’s deportation priorities, making just about anyone in the country illegally a target for arrest and removal.
“This is obviously a marked change from previous priorities,” said St. Paul-based spokesman Shawn Neudauer. He noted detentions remain on par with Obama’s first term.
Even as arrests nationally rose in the first half of 2017, deportations dipped by 13 percent over the same period last year because of immigration court backlogs and other factors. The St. Paul office deported 1,452 people, up almost 60 percent from the first half of 2016, according to agency data. About 30 percent had no criminal convictions.
Jockeying for space
The increase in ICE detentions has boosted revenue for the sheriff’s offices that contract with the agency; the offices charge ICE $70 to $90 per inmate per day. In comparison, the Minnesota Department of Corrections reimburses county jails a daily rate of $55 to house inmates.
The joint tab for ICE from the five jails topped $1 million in both July and August for the first time in recent years. The number doesn’t include charges when deputies transport ICE inmates to, say, immigration court hearings. Freeborn County, with the second largest ICE detainee population in the state, charged ICE about $148,000 for such services this year through August.
Freeborn Sheriff Kurt Freitag said the recent ICE detainee increase hasn’t strained capacity, but the jail sent county inmates to other county jails more often this summer to ensure space for federal detainees. He said the jail has fielded occasional complaints about this practice, but an online inmate visitation system has helped.
“Boarding for inmates at other county jails is not as expensive as the revenue we create by housing ICE detainees,” he said.
Net revenue from the ICE contract goes into a fund that is helping the county pay off its government center building and a public safety radio system, among other projects, Freitag said.
In Sherburne County, with the largest ICE detainee population in the state, Sheriff Joel Brott said the jail is making a plan to increase the number of inmates who are double-bunked, or housed two to a jail cell, as the 667-bed facility has reached capacity. The jail, one of the largest in the region, wrapped up a major expansion in 2000 with the goal of housing federal inmates.
The jail has also transferred county inmates to other local facilities. Brott noted that the facility also houses detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service, the state Department of Corrections, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other counties, so its inmate population isn’t driven solely by ICE detainees.
“Whether it’s an increase in our jail capacity [adding beds] or enlisting other county jails in holding our local inmates or federal detainees, this means fewer criminals being released out into our communities,” Brott wrote in a statement.
More dollars for counties
Brott noted that among the 1,232 ICE detainees from more than 70 countries booked so far this year, almost three-quarters had at least one criminal conviction, including 215 drunken driving violations, 147 drug offenses, 113 domestic assault convictions, 30 robberies and two murders.
Sherburne billed ICE $640,000 for housing in August alone. Revenue from that contract offsets costs for operating the jail, with additional dollars going into an “enterprise fund” that has financed a slew of projects over the years.
To Linus Chan at the University of Minnesota’s Detainee Rights Clinics, the jail data captures starkly the cost of ramped-up immigration enforcement.
“One million [dollars] for one month — that’s what it’s costing taxpayers to house ICE inmates in Minnesota,” he said.
The local advocacy groups MIRAC and Asamblea de Derechos Civiles have recently held events meant in part to urge local sheriff’s offices to stop contracting with ICE. This summer, the groups protested in front of Carver County jail and brought a marching band to perform in front of the Freeborn County jail.
Adriana Cerrillo, a MIRAC leader, said the effort is a long shot: “It’s a big business — making profit off of detaining individuals who are not criminals.”
State Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who lives a block away from the Sherburne County jail, said he takes pride in having a “world-class” detention facility that allows the county to cover local law enforcement costs while helping out the feds.
“The idea of looking the other way and not enforcing immigration laws seems like a failed experiment,” he said. “Purposefully subverting these immigration laws doesn’t breed confidence in the law as a whole.”