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How Milwaukee County Sheriff's Plan to Aid ICE Might Impact Unauthorized Immigrants

Marti Mikkelson
Milwaukee County courthouse

Across Wisconsin, law enforcement agencies have been deciding whether or not to help enforce federal immigration rules.

For instance in Milwaukee, Police Chief Edward Flynn has said he’s not interested, but county Sheriff David Clarke is. He recently asked to participate in the federal 287(g) program, which would train deputies how to identify and detain immigrants who may be in the country illegally.

While Clarke awaits word on his request, WUWM asked a few people where deputies and unauthorized immigrants would likely come into contact in Milwaukee.

It could take a year for the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to approve a partnership with the Milwaukee County sheriff. If it does, one place deputies might be able to detain people is in the county courthouse. Thousands pass through a metal detector at the door each day.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic says there are many reasons unauthorized immigrants would have business at the courthouse. “Whether it is deeds for their house, marriage license or mostly court cases, they are interfacing with our security and essentially the sheriff’s department,” she says.

Dimitrijevic says while the sheriff initially wants permission to check immigration status – only among people in the county jail, she fears deputies would eventually detain people during traffic stops on the freeway.

She says some residents are already trying to remain invisible. “They’re afraid to take their children to school. They’re afraid to drive at night and they’re afraid to participate in society,” Dimitrijevic says.

Dimitrijevic sponsored a resolution that the County Board passed a few weeks ago that states Milwaukee County remains a place where unauthorized immigrants are welcome. The supervisor says she’s also working on a plan to make the courthouse a sanctuary of sorts.

“We’ve requested in my resolution that the courthouse be named a sensitive location, so that people who are seeking justice would not interact with any kind of federal ICE or Homeland Security agent,” Dimitrijevic says.

“Don’t drive without a license, don’t drive an automobile while intoxicated," local immigration Attorney Marc Christopher says. He’s advising the many people calling his office to obey the law.

"Maybe they get a ticket or a fine for some innocuous offense and they don’t pay the fine, then they’ll have a warrant for them for not paying a $100 or $200 fine,” Christopher says.

Then, Christopher says, they might wind up in jail. “It would be very unlikely for the sheriff to be enlisted by ICE to go knock on doors or to set up any checkpoints. What I think is very realistic is that, when people are detained in the county jail which is run by the sheriff, I think it’s very likely that they could be screened as far as their immigration status and then that would be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” he says.

Christopher says he also tells clients to have money for bail and a guardianship plan for their children. The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office would become the first law enforcement agency in Wisconsin to participate in the ICE program, if approved.

Currently, about three dozen agencies in 16 other states are taking part. One is the sheriff’s department in Tulsa County, Oklahoma. Deputy Justin Green says its officers have been assisting ICE for ten years.

“We come into contact with a lot of people who happen to be immigrants,” he says.

Green says the only place Tulsa deputies check for proof of citizenship is at the county jail. “Our agents only come into contact with immigrants once they have been booked for an actual crime,” he says.

Then, Green says, ICE decides whether or not to deport any inmates identified as in the country illegally. He notes that all deputies who participate in the 287(g) program, go through four weeks of training. It includes schooling in civil rights and immigration law, along with instruction on the extent of a local authority’s reach.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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